Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch visited Illinois State University on Friday as the featured speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner.
Lynch was sworn in as attorney general in April 2015, during the presidency of Barack Obama. She was the first African-American woman to serve in that post.
Before the MLK dinner, Lynch sat down with GLT’s Jon Norton for an interview. Here is a transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length.
GLT: We’re all socialized a certain way in how we view each other. We all grow up in different places. We have different levels if privilege. And there seems to be a huge moat separating us around issues such as police/community relations. How do we bridge that?
Lynch: The first thing I would say is that it’s an issue I’ve been working on since the 1990s in New York when I worked on the Abner Louima case in Brooklyn and saw how that case really roiled the city and just eroded bonds of trust. At the same time, I also saw situations where when I had police and agents working directly in a community, they were able to, on a community by community basis, reconnect and rebuild that trust. So when I was able to move into the attorney general’s chair, I was honored to have the opportunity to bring that perspective to bear. I’ve always found that by going out into the field, you get the best answers to these questions.
What we focused on were cities that had a very challenged relationship with police, and often with the Department of Justice, but had really worked to bring themselves back from that. And we looked at what these six cities had in common, and try to bring these ideas to other cities and police jurisdictions.
The main issue I still hear about is community desire for transparency and accountability on the part of police. Is there a trust, for example, in an internal affairs system that will fairly adjudicate a shooting or a use of force? Is there an ability to understand the parameters or guidelines that a police department is going to use to look at that? How can citizens get a view into that process so that whatever that result, it’s been fair? That’s a very difficult question.
It requires looking at police training, it requires looking at police culture, and it also requires educating the community and the structure of their training. I found the best place to start was by literally getting people in a room and talking about these problems. Unfortunately, what usually drives people to the table is a tragic event. So you also have to deal with the emotions that run high after these events.
Bloomington and Normal are both in the process of creating police civilian review boards. One of the arguments from the police is that the public doesn’t understand police work. Is that a fair argument?
It actually is fair. Police work is actually very different from most other professions in this country in the need for the type of training, the type of equipment, and frankly the incredible amount of power a police officer has … the discretion they have to use and the judgement they have to bring to bear in every second of the day almost. So it actually is a fair comment and I’ve heard that a lot. But what has to follow that comment is a platform or a bridge to communications to help the public understand.
Several years ago, what used to be popular were what used to be ridealongs. So a local police department would invite elected officials, journalists, and then citizens to literally ride along with them to see what a police officer’s day was like. Los Angeles is doing that electronically. You can ride along, you can connect with an officer via the department’s Facebook page and actually see what they encounter. A lot of police departments are using body cameras to put video up of a typical day in the life of a police department. So that’s helpful.
What I’ve also found helpful is to involve the community in police training. When the police academy structures a program that has at least some ways to bring community leaders in to see what type of training is going on, and to provide input into that … not to take it over because that’s not their training … but to raise their questions and concerns and say to the trainers, “How are you going to handle the situation where a family member has to call the police because an emotionally disturbed person is someone they cannot control?” and to get those answers early on in the process.
Police-involved shootings are not new, but it seems there is something emotionally that grabs you when you can see it. Is having all that video out there now good or bad?
The visual makes it real to people who really did not understand the impact of an officer-involved shooting. And this involves members of the community who may have been sympathetic, but just often did not understand what particularly members of the minority community were saying when they talked about the level of frustration and fear and concern that these incidents raised. These viral videos also showed people the depth of the problem.
Police shootings have always occurred. Police officers have to use their guns in these situations. The number of officer involved shootings of civilians has stayed roughly even for the past two to three years; it’s around the high 900s to a thousand. But this visibility into these actions has raised questions and concerns, but it’s also given people an idea of how fast these incidents occur on one hand, and sometimes what goes into them. This is akin to the time in the civil rights movement when (TV) cameras showed the level of violence being displayed and being aimed at kids and people marching in the streets of the south. People at that point who before had said, “Sounds like a good idea, but I’m not really sure it’s my issue,” finally said, “Now I get it. Now I understand what people are talking about.”
It’s not a question of whether the videos are good or bad, it’s what do we do with them. Do we use them as a way to open up dialogue? Do we use them as a way to talk about how body cameras are different from cell phones with videos? And do we use them as a way to tell the story of what policing is like in America today?
What does that say about our society that it takes that change (video of shootings) for a large part of our population to go “Oh, I had no idea”?
I think one of the things we have to do is really look at how diverse this population really is and what that means, and understand that people sometimes don’t get it. But sometimes it’s just not part of their experience. Martin Luther King called it “the other America,” and using the Civil Rights movement to awaken at the time mostly white Americans’ views to what life was like for blacks in the south and also in the North because we came to Illinois as well.
The viral videos have done similar things. So we’ve now been able to have a much broader discussion about law enforcement accountability. We have police officers actively involved in working on these issues, such as de-escalation training. I was able to visit some incredibly talented police departments as attorney general, who were working on these issues because they did not want to be the next Ferguson, Missouri, they did not want to be the next Baltimore. And often they came to the Department of Justice and said, “What resources do you have that can help us?” And often what we were able to do was connect them with other departments that were thinking through these same issues.
We also sometimes had to take action to hold police departments accountable. Our Pattern and Practice activity was one way in which we did that.
When presidential administrations change, priorities change. Do you think this issue has gotten to the point where on the state and local level it’s continuing the work of Washington, D.C., and the Department of Justice?
I feel that it is just from talking to people in the field, and I certainly hope that it is. We spent a lot of time in the last administration trying to empower communities and law enforcement to both have a dialogue about how to improve relationships. But also to put in place real changes that were evidence-based that had been proven to have worked in other jurisdictions.
No police chief wants to wake up and have to explain to a family why their child is no longer living because of an encounter with an officer. They want to protect the communities that they serve, and they want to tools and resources to do that. Community members also are getting more involved. They are essentially engaging one-on-one with police officers.
You mentioned a civilian review board in one of the Twin Cities here. Those can be very effective. But what I would say is those boards have constantly be thinking about ways to keep their work fresh, to keep it relevant, and to keep it connected particularly with young people. People who aren’t necessarily in the work force or typically wouldn’t engage with authority figures will tell you what’s going on in terms of their view of law enforcement.
We talked with the police chief of Lincoln, Nebraska, last year. They’ve been doing community policing seriously for 45 years. He was nine months into his job coming from the state highway patrol. He was dubious about community policing and the review board when he came in. Nine months later he was a total believer, saying it was a “need” not a “want.” So you need that buy-in.
You do, you do.
How do you get that buy-in if people don’t want to buy-in?
What we found is when it comes to police leadership, you do have individuals not familiar with how effective community policing can be. When we encountered that at the Department of Justice, hopefully we would encounter that before there was an incident that brought us in, we could encounter that through discussion and dialogue. One of the things we do is try to make other police chiefs available to them who do have a positive experience with community policing. We worked a lot through the Community Oriented Policing Services or the “COPS” office to connect local law enforcement leaders together. It’s great if someone from Washington can come out and provide resources and funding for community policing. And it’s great if either the attorney general or someone else connected with the department can talk about the importance of community policing. It’s key that their peers and colleagues share that information. So when you connect a police chief with one of his colleagues, you can really have an honest dialogue and talk about those benefits.
At the dinner tonight I’ll talk about what (Martin Luther) King faced what seemed to be insurmountable problems in the Civil Rights movement. We look back on it today and think it seems almost inevitable. Of course, how could anyone not think segregation was wrong or the schools should be improved for everyone and should be integrated? But at the time, particularly when you look at the history of the south before the Civil Rights statutes were passed, no one knew if this would succeed. So he was facing what appeared to be an insurmountable problem.
So when we look at insurmountable problems today, particularly in police/community relations, we could easily fall back into that same feeling—the view that this is something too hard and never fix. That is not the case. I’ll be referencing my work in police and community relations as an example of how you can make progress.
Americans kill each other at a higher rate than any other western/advanced nation. And police killing civilians is part of that. The commonality seems to be guns. When you were attorney general, was that part of the conversation when you were talking with police departments, civil rights groups, and civilians about community policing and how to make things better?
Certainly on a community by community basis you would know what the main issues were, and yes, most police shootings involve emotionally disturbed people, but a lot involve individuals who have firearms and police are encountering those people.
It has to make a police officer more jittery, or whatever term you want to use, knowing everyone might be armed. In other countries, this doesn’t happen. Here, you don’t know who is armed anymore. That has to have a huge effect on police.
It does. And it’s certainly something a lot of police departments are factoring into their training. Certainly there are going to be times when officers have to use force. Our view is that it always needs to be proportional and calibrated to the harm they were facing. There are going to be times a gun is going to escalate the situation. When it comes to civilian use of firearms against each other … that’s one of the tragedies in this country. I grew up in the South, I’m from North Carolina where guns are a way of life as much as they are in many other places. And I can remember in high school every year one of my classmates would lose their life because they found a firearm and were playing with it.
So one of the things we focused on in the last administration was trying to enact policies that dealt with firearm safety. For example, fund firearm safety regulations that would let a gun recognize its owner; the smart gun system. Because we knew responsible gun owners want to be safe gun owners. And those two things are not inconsistent.
And that’s something frankly has not been talked about enough. It’s another type of debate that has become very polarized. So you have a lot of discussion on the extreme sides of that issue, but not a lot of talk about what can the responsible gun owner do to also ensure gun safety. No gun owner wants their child to suffer an accident. No gun owner wants to be robbed and have that gun used against some other innocent person. This is an area I always thought there could be a great deal of common ground.
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