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Remarks of Laurie Robinson, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Harvard Executive Session on Policing

Thursday, January 13, 2011
Cambridge, MA

     Good morning. It's great to be here with Chris, my good friend, Gil, who is a co-funder of this event, and so many friends from around the country.

     In fact, before coming up here from Washington, and braving the snow, I looked over the list of attendees, and I feel like this is a gathering of everyone I've ever worked with in criminal justice over the last several decades - what a pleasure!

     But I really want to applaud the organizers of this session - Chris [Stone], Christine Cole, and of course, the Steering Committee - for putting together such an impressive list of participants. This group really is the best and the brightest, and I'm very honored to be here.

     I also want to acknowledge my NIJ colleagues, beginning with its Director, John Laub. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have such a highly respected scientist at the helm of NIJ - and his receiving the Stockholm Prize in Criminology is a marvelous recognition of his scholarship.

     I also want to thank Ellen Scrivner, Kris Rose, and Thom Feucht, who've provided tremendous guidance to me, and I know have worked closely with Chris, Christine, and the Steering Committee over the past three years to ensure that the Executive Session discussions have been both lively and relevant.

     And if the papers I've read are any indication, this will be a robust - and provocative - discussion. I understand that one of the criteria for attendees is that they be willing to debate and disagree. Hmm. . . . as I look around this room, I don't think that's going to be a problem. This is not a shy crowd. Certainly, no words were minced in the papers, and I expect we'll see similar candor as the discussions ensue.

     But - more seriously - we know the ideas being discussed here have the potential to help determine the shape of policing over the next two decades, just as the first Executive Session was so central in shaping the last 20 years of law enforcement - and just as the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967 gave direction to law enforcement in the years before that.

     David Bayley and Christine Nixon point out in their paper that this session is framed by the President's Commission. That was where science and policing really first came together, at least in any sort of systematic way. My husband, Sheldon Krantz, helped write the Commission's chapter on police those many years ago, so I feel a real kinship to that document.

     As we know, that was a time that called for big ideas in policing. I think we'd all agree that the time for big ideas has come again. This is an unusual moment for the policing field - and for criminal justice as a whole. In one sense, policing is in a very good place. Crime levels are at historic lows, and law enforcement is actually getting some of the credit.

     In another sense, police are being hit on all sides - with multiple and growing responsibilities; with increased demand for services - as George Gascón (the new San Francisco D.A.!) and Todd Foglesong explain; they're targets of a growing number of violent assaults, as we've seen in year-end statistics from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund; and of course they're facing serious budget challenges.

     So I think this special session is very timely. It gives us a chance to step back, take stock of where we are, and have a tough conversation among seasoned leaders in policing research and practice.

     Our goal here is to challenge conventional wisdom - to take nothing for granted and open everything for scrutiny. That's a good course.

     For my part, I'd like to throw out a few questions for consideration. In my reading of the material, I can see there's a very broad range of issues being addressed - and I know the great minds here will add many to the list.

     For obvious reasons, I want to start with this one: What's the role of the federal government going forward?

     When I was at the Executive Session in June of '09, I asked that question, and I'm still looking for answers. I probably would have answered this question differently then than I would now. We hadn't yet seen the full impact then of the recession. Now, we have what seems like a daily parade of bad budget news from public safety departments, and we're feeling the impact on the federal budget.

     You hear about agencies like the Oakland Police Department, which cut 80 jobs last year. Or Camden, New Jersey, where half the city's police force may be laid off.

     And add to that the fact that the federal government is facing its own set of fiscal challenges. The problems that states and cities have been dealing with have come to Washington, and we're learning some of those hard lessons that many of you have already faced. You'll probably see those in the President's 2012 budget next month - and it won't be too pretty.

     So what is our role in Washington as partners in helping shape policing for the next 20 years? How do we support knowledge-building and scientific progress in the policing field? And how can the Department of Justice best engage with this discussion?

     A second question: In some ways, the face of the debate about policing and the challenges we're seeing across the country is the large, urban police department. Somehow, the small departments have been left out of the national discussion. This is, in my view, a major omission. The latest BJS reports tell us that roughly half of all local police departments in the U.S. employ fewer than 10 full-time officers. Almost a third have fewer than five officers. That's a huge number of departments.

     To take one illustration from the papers for this session, those of Sparrow, Weisburd, and Neyroud, are we reaching these departments at all to have any discussion on evidence-based approaches? Can they be part of this discussion at all? Or are we ignoring them? What about on the issue of professionalism? What is the quality of our interaction? Have we abandoned any effort to draw them into the discussion?

     As an aside, having recently attended the IACP conference in Orlando last fall for 5 days with 15,000 police chiefs, and incidentally, about 7 criminologists, I'm personally not too worried that David Weisburd is going to be dictating scientific agendas to all those small town police chiefs!

     Finally, I would urge that issues of procedural justice, race, and legitimacy be high on the agenda for discussion over the next two days. They are, it seems to me - and to Attorney General Eric Holder, who has a deep interest in them - issues that resonate deeply with the core pillars in a democracy - the relationships of trust and respect between the governed and the government's front line.

     As Jeremy Travis and Chris Stone point out, "legitimacy" has been defined differently in different eras. Police effectiveness today, I would assert, cannot exist without approval and accountability in the eyes of the community. Balancing this against the movement toward greater centralized decision-making and technical efficiency in policing will present an enormous challenge.

     So the next several days offer an unusual opportunity. This is a time - with crime at historic lows - when we have the luxury to be more expansive. When we can make a contribution to imagining a new future of policing. I encourage you to be bold, and I look forward to the conversations.


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