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National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) March 11, 2017

17th Annual Achiever’s Awards Dinner
Keynote Speaker: LAPD Commission President, Matthew M. Johnson

Good evening.  Thank you so much for having me here today. It is truly inspiring to be in the company of so many accomplished people - men and women who are dedicated to lifting up the people and neighborhoods of our region.

It is such an honor to be in this room full of incredible leaders. The work you do, the values of integrity, partnership, and compassion that you take into our communities every day is critical to defining how policing will look in our neighborhoods tomorrow, because you are the future of policing.  Thank you for giving me this opportunity.  When Captain Waters told me that the theme of today’s event was “Community Matters: There is still work to be done,” I had coincidentally just begun re-reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s final manuscript, “Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?”

It’s no secret to anyone here: we are living in very unsettling times, not very different from the turbulent era that compelled Dr. King to write that manuscript.  People from coast to coast were gripped with fear, worried that our country was slipping off the path to equality and progress.

Despite the gains of the Civil Rights movement, very little had changed in people’s day-to-day lives — especially in many of America’s poorest, Black communities.  Schools remained largely segregated, deteriorating and educationally dysfunctional.  Poor housing, crime, drugs, and a lack of job opportunities kept people trapped in poverty.  Angry voices were demanding a more militant approach to making change.  And this was after the incredible success of the Alabama voter-registration campaign, which led to the Selma-to-Montgomery March, and finally to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the midst of these triumphs of will, spirit, and justice, Los Angeles erupted in flames just days after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, when the Watts Rebellion began. Dr. King understood the urgent need for self-examination, reflection, and a call-to-action in the face of long odds. His message was one of hope and the urgency of pressing forward in a united social movement focused on creating an equal and just society.

The questions Dr. King posed in 1967 are insightful for our time. And the wise solutions he proposed can still lead us to the inclusion and prosperity that he dreamt of. In 1967, he posed two questions, “Where are we?” And “Where are we going?” Fifty years later, I’m asking the same questions: first, “Where are we?”

It’s no secret that one of the most pressing issues facing America right now is the relationship between police and the communities they serve, particularly the African-American and Hispanic communities.  A tremendous amount of energy and effort has been focused on rebuilding, and in some instances, creating a relationship of trust between the police and the public. President Obama launched the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The recommendations from the Task Force are now being implemented by hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country.

Calls for reform have been embraced by organizations like NOBLE, which has been fighting for justice in policing and public service for more than 40 years; but there’s also the Police Executive Research Forum, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Major Cities Chiefs Association, and many, many others.  Right here in Los Angeles, the leaders of two of the nation’s largest police forces Chief Charlie Beck and Sheriff Jim McDonnell have been outspoken leaders on many of these issues.   Nevertheless, despite our best intentions and forward progress, there remain heightened tensions and a pervasive feeling among some that not enough is being done, that progress is too slow.

Today, we are faced with three significant challenges.  The first challenge is the further breakdown of trust between the police and the African-American community exacerbated by police shootings here and across the country.  The second challenge arises out of the immigration policies and divisive rhetoric of our new President.  And our third challenge is rising crime. Mistrust between the African-American community and the police is nothing new.

And beginning in August of 2014 with the death of Michael Brown, the issue of policing in America began dominating the national consciousness. Videos began to surface, seemingly one after another, of unarmed African-Americans dying at the hands of police. We watched the death of Eric Garner, choked to death by a police officer on the streets of New York; Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot by a police officer in the back while running away; Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times; 15 times while on the ground for walking away from an officer while holding a 3-inch knife; and twelve-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland who was shot and killed within seconds of police arriving at the park where he was playing with a toy gun; and the list goes on.

In one horrific week last July, we saw the death of Alton Sterling, a father of five killed while pinned to the ground for selling CDs outside of a convenience store.  And Philando Castile, killed during a traffic stop in front of his child and fiancée, through the immediate aftermath broadcast for the world to see.

And we were equally traumatized by the deaths of the five officers who senselessly and tragically lost their lives in Dallas: Sergeant Michael Smith, Senior Corporal Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Officer Patrick Zamarripa, and Officer Brent Thompson.  These brave men were protecting the First Amendment rights of peaceful demonstrators when they were tragically stalked and gunned down by an angry, cowardly gunman.  And this tragedy was followed by the murders of three officers in Baton Rouge: Officer Montrell Jackson, Officer Matthew Gerald, and Sheriff’s Officer Brad Garafola. After responding to a “man with a gun” call, they were ambushed by a man with an AR 15-type weapon intent on killing them.

They’re all gone, citizens and officers alike.  Lives ended for no discernible good reason.  I know that every name I have shared, citizen and officer, is one you already know.  Their names are forever touchstones in this national conversation we are having about race and policing.  We cannot undo their fates, but we can remember each of them, humanize each of them, and let their memories motivate us to find ways to strengthen the bond between citizens and police.  As today’s theme reminds us, Community does Matter, and community includes us all, which means everyone has to accept responsibility and get involved.

Our second challenge is no less daunting. The election of President Trump followed one of the most divisive campaigns in our nation’s history.  America elected a man who ran the most racially and culturally divisive campaign since George Wallace in 1968. He campaigned on a promise to build a wall and deport as many people as possible. He has encouraged Islamophobia and trafficked in anti-Muslim fear mongering.  And in these first months of his presidency, he has already shown he is determined to make good on his promises.

There is deep fear in our immigrant communities about ICE actions and police complicity with them.  We have also seen a spike nationally in hate crimes against our Hispanic, Muslim, and Jewish

And it doesn’t help improve trust between police and communities of color when the President portrays inner cities as riddled with crime, champions a return to counterproductive practices like “stop, question, and frisk”, appoints an Attorney General who believes that consent decrees are, and I quote, “One of the most dangerous, and rarely discussed, exercises of raw power,” and under the guise of being pro-police, attacks the legitimate concerns of many reform advocates.

Particularly for us here in southern California, with our uniquely diverse population, the President’s policies have already sown a tremendous amount of fear, anger and discord. It’s palpable and it makes your jobs that much harder.  I know that we’re more than the sum of our individual parts, and that law enforcement in and around Los Angeles, and even up and down the state of California, is better than that.  We’ve been through riots, on multiple occasions, and emerged from the ashes stronger, more resilient.  Law enforcement is, and always will be an essential part of our community.

Finally, our third challenge relates to rising crime rates. The reality is crime rates in this country remain at historic lows.   Over the past 25 years, crime in major cities fell 65 percent.  Violent crime is half of what it was in 1991, and has fallen 23% in the last decade. The nation’s murder rates for 2015 and 2016 remain close to recent historic lows.

In Los Angeles, crime is at the level it was in the mid-1950s.  Still, we have seen increases over the last several years, and African-Americans continue to be disproportionately the victims and suspects of these crimes.   In Los Angeles, despite being 10% of the population, African-Americans were 40% of homicide victims and almost 46% of all gang-related homicide victims.

Some have attributed at least part of this increase to three measures enacted in the last seven years: Propositions 47 and 57, and Assembly Bill 109, which have led to the release of too many people without creating a proper, post-incarceration safety net of mental health, drug rehabilitation and other services.

The truth is we simply don’t have evidence to show that these criminal justice reform measures are directly impacting crime. We hope to know soon and I know there are people working on studies as we speak.  In any event, the uptick in crime is definitely concerning.  Job one for the police is to reduce crime and the fear of crime.

Conversations about these challenges are difficult. They are painful. They create a backdrop for the pervasive culture of “us versus them” an idea that somehow the community and the police are on opposing sides.

We hear that rhetoric all the time from both sides - community members and police officers alike.  I hear it every week at our Police Commission meetings.  I hear it sometimes when I speak to officers, and it’s a narrative pushed hard by our current President and his administration.  However, we know it’s not true and it’s certainly not productive.  It’s not the relationship that anyone wants.  And, I know it’s not why you joined this profession.

So, that’s where we are and those are the challenges we face.  Now we must ask Dr. King’s second question:  Where are we going?  How do we meet these challenges and push forward?

The reality is our community, particularly the African-American community, needs the police as much as ever.  And if police want to be successful in solving crime and reducing the crime rate, they must
have the trust and cooperation of the community.  This is not merely anecdotal.  We have decades of research and scholarship to back it up.

I have seen the commitment to nurturing this relationship from officers across the LAPD.  Some of my most rewarding moments as a Police Commissioner come from conversations I have with officers of all ranks, from a variety of backgrounds, whether at graduations, on ride-a-longs, or at roll calls.

I often ask these officers why they chose this profession, with all of the challenges and stress that come with the job.  And for the most part, their answers are simple and consistent: they want to make a difference.  They want to improve our communities and keep our residents safe. The same reasons I accepted my appointment to the police commission.

The truth is, we have police officers doing the job for the right reasons and we have communities that want and need police.  This should be easy, right?  If only, that was the case.

We know that it only takes the proverbial one bad apple to spoil the bunch.  One bad contact between a citizen and an officer chips away at the trust that we are all working so hard to build.  One bad police shooting, no matter where it occurs, or how it was initiated, can shatter the faith of entire communities. The work of strengthening bonds of trust is never easy and it is never finished.  It has to be worked on continuously, and never taken for granted.

As President of the Police Commission for the LAPD, I spend countless hours thinking about this issue and have worked to do my part to restore those bonds. I am proud of the work we’re doing, and I’m proud of the how the LAPD and our officers have embraced this work.  We are committed to constitutional, fair, respectful, and unbiased policing of our diverse communities.

We are building a foundation that will allow the Department to not only keep our neighborhoods safe and reduce crime, but also respects and understands the people we serve - policing that ensures progress, and leads us into the future.

We are becoming more transparent and accountable every day: from publishing the nation’s most comprehensive analysis of our use of force to implementing body cameras and digital in-car video across our entire Department to how we make information available to the public regarding officer-involved shootings.  And soon, I hope to implement a video release policy that mandates the release of footage of critical incidents like police shootings that so concern our citizens.

I know this is controversial for some, but I firmly believe this level of transparency will benefit the  Department by making us more accountable to the people we serve. I was heartened to see that the Major Cities Chiefs Association recently embraced this concept.

And we are updating our training from Department-wide preservation of life training, to implicit bias training to emphasizing de-escalation techniques to increasing reality and scenario based training, and providing specific training on handling persons suspected of being mentally ill, to name just a few examples.  And of course, we are equipping our officers with the best tools available to keep them safe and minimize the need to use lethal force. Tools like Tasers and 40 mm and beanbag shotguns.

We will always keep asking: “How can we improve? And how can we deepen our commitment to community and relationship-based policing?”

But I also know that while the work we are doing is important in the effort to rebuild trust, it is not enough.  What really matters is the day-to-day interactions between police officers and the community.

As Dwayne Crawford, executive director of NOBLE said, “Community policing is a necessary tool to counter feelings of distrust and disenfranchisement by many people of color.”

The success of community policing relies in large part on positive community engagement in non-enforcement contacts.  The daily interaction between an officer on the street and a community member is just as important as any report or policy change.  It is these interactions, one by one; that I know will build trust and respect. Because everyone - police officers and community members alike want to be treated with basic dignity and respect.  If we want this to be effective, everyone must be engaged in this process. And African-American law enforcement personnel play an essential role in this.

As highlighted in the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and in a more recent report by the Justice Department, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “to build trust and legitimacy police departments must reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.”  African-American police officers are better equipped to understand diverse communities. Your very presence removes a huge barrier to trust, and organizationally, your presence helps change the culture — making it less insular, less uniform in thought.

There is nobody better equipped to lead our cities, and our nation, in altering the course of the relationship between law enforcement and the African-American community, than each and every one of you.  Police work, even during the best of times, is difficult and dangerous work.  Police officers are forced to deal with people on their worst days, and expected to act with dignity and respect, no matter how you are treated.

Wearing a badge today comes with the highest expectations of conduct and integrity, surpassing expectations most people have for themselves.  Being an African-American officer comes with unique trials that can make the job even more challenging. You put yourself at risk every day, to protect and serve, and it is not right to have your integrity questioned by members of our own community.

I know it’s not easy to go out there every day when you don’t feel supported.  You joined the force with honor, and you don’t deserve to have your sincerity challenged by our own community.  You deserve all of our gratitude for your service, and for your role in creating departments that are better equipped to reflect and protect all of our communities.

But let’s use those moments of misplaced or misguided anger and frustration as important reminders that each of us in this room has a unique opportunity to make a difference, at a critical moment in our nation’s history.  Each of us has a seat at the table.  This is a time that makes not just your presence, but your active engagement critical.   And we must work to ensure that we continue to have a seat at the table.  We must fight to ensure that African Americans continue to be properly represented throughout the ranks of our police departments.

Today, we are fortunate that the diversity of the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reflect the overall diversity of our city and county. But while today we are fortunate, I am very concerned about our tomorrows.  We’ve come a long way, but we are not where we want, or need to be.  A lack of diversity continues to be a major problem with police departments throughout our country, and if current trends continue, it will become a serious problem here in Los Angeles too.

We are seeing a dearth of African-Americans in the most recent recruiting classes here in Los Angeles. Last year, the percentage of new African-American academy graduates in the LAPD was below 8%.  In the Sheriff’s Department it was below 5%.  Far below the 10% of the population African-Americans represent.

Although you may hear differently, I believe there is no better time for a career in law enforcement.  Police officers across this country are forming meaningful partnerships with communities to improve their quality of life.  Law enforcement leaders are standing up for our most vulnerable communities and looking for ways to improve our criminal justice system.

Yes, we are asking more of our cops than ever, but only because we know that you’re up to the job.

And this is especially true for African-Americans in policing.  So we need to continue fighting to make sure that African-Americans are properly represented in the ranks of our police departments. But this is not just about recruitment, it’s about inclusion.

Inclusiveness means more African-American women and men across all levels of the Department.  It means meaningful opportunities for coveted assignments and career paths.  It means that any African-American officer can see herself as Chief of Police one day.  We need to identify the barriers that undermine diversity in law enforcement and propose practices for promoting equal opportunity in recruiting, hiring, promoting and retaining officers.  And as we continue fighting for inclusion, I want to remind all of us that diversification was not given, it was fought for.

But today, thanks to all of you, not only do we expect diversity we expect inclusion at all levels.  You are proof that the fight was well worth it, and you are the inspiration to continue the fight.  And organizations like NOBLE, groups dedicated to the success of officers of color, are essential in this work.  For the past 41 years, members and leaders of NOBLE have been mobilizing and working together to eliminate discrimination of any kind - both internally and externally with the community.

In closing, I hope that as African-American law enforcement personnel, we keep striving to emulate Dr. King’s determination to explore what needs to be done and to take action accordingly: that we continue to examine where we are, and where we are going.

Whether you are a chief, an officer on the beat, or somewhere in between you are all leaders.  Even though the profession exposes you to the worst in people, I hope each of you will continue to lead by serving people without judgment, and with empathy and compassion.  Even if we can’t solve every problem, we can show that our mission is to not only protect but to understand and respect the people we serve.  Rebuilding that trust one contact at a time.

To achieve that, we must be purposeful in our everyday actions and interactions on the job. We must put aside our fears, our uncertainties, our disappointments, and our suspicions, and be spokespersons for our agencies, our communities, as well as the law enforcement profession.  We must have the courage to take the first step.  It is up to us to change the narrative of police and community relations.

Where instead of “us” versus “them,” there is only an “us”, inclusive of civilians and the officers who serve them; all working together, focused on a single goal: creating safer and more just communities.

You harness the power of where we are going.  If we fully embrace the principles of community and relationship-based policing, you will change the narrative and be seen as the role models and protectors you are.

Remember, change never happens overnight, but we all have the power to act now in ways that lead to a better tomorrow.  As Dr. King showed us, there is power not only in us as a whole, but in us as individuals.  I urge you all to remain fully aware of your strength and influence, and to use that power toward lifting up neighborhoods across America.

I urge you to continue carrying out your duties with wisdom, integrity, empathy, transparency, humility, honor, pride, and, most importantly, love. And I thank you for your service to our City, our county, or whatever community you serve every one of you. In the words of Dr. King, “We are now making the choices which will determine whether we can achieve these goals in the decades to come. We cannot afford to make these choices poorly.”

As long as each of you proudly holds your position and carries out your duties with courage and integrity, we will continue moving toward a safer and more just future.

Thank you all so very much.