WASHINGTON — Attorney General Loretta Lynch voiced strong support Monday for the country's police officers, praising them as peacemakers and encouraging them to be part of the national conversation about improving relationships with minority communities.
The address to the national Fraternal Order of Police in Pittsburgh reaffirmed the Justice Department's support for law enforcement at a time of unease between police departments and the communities they serve. The deaths of several black people at the hands of white police officers over the last year have focused attention on police training and use of force and prompted a discussion about the role racial bias can play in law enforcement.
The speech came a day after the anniversary of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri. Gatherings marking the anniversary had largely been peaceful, though a man who opened fire on officers was critically wounded after the officers shot back, police said Monday. The St. Louis County executive declared a state of emergency after the shooting, and Lynch condemned the violence as obscuring "any message of peaceful protest."
"Recent events in communities across the country have served as stark and tragic reminders of the tensions that exist in too many neighborhoods between law enforcement officers and the people we serve," Lynch said in her speech. "One year after the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, we have yet again seen the consequences for officers and residents when those tensions erupt into unrest and violence."
When mutual trust exists, she added, residents are more likely to cooperate with investigations and police are better able to aid the community.
With the speech, Lynch addressed an emotionally freighted issue that has roiled the country in the last year. It's a topic that her predecessor, Eric Holder, tackled often in the final year of his tenure — even as some in law enforcement criticized him as insufficiently supportive. FBI Director James Comey also entered the debate last February with a speech at Georgetown University, when he said the country was at a crossroads on matters of race relations and police and needed to confront "hard truths" on both sides.
In her address to the police union, Lynch spoke in unequivocal support for law enforcement as she sought to reassure officers that she understood the challenges that they face. She praised them for running toward danger when others head in the other direction and for "working to maintain the peace."
She recalled a visit to a third-grade classroom in Cincinnati, where a boy said he aspired to be a police officer "because they are the peacemakers."
"Thank you for being the peacemakers," Lynch said.
She acknowledged that the public sometimes makes assumptions about police officers, but said that was why law enforcement needs to speak proudly about the work it does.
"No one else can talk about that moment when you have to decide how to defuse a situation, always aware that all may walk away alive or none, including you," Lynch said. "You are the ones who must tell the story of policing in this country, because this country needs to hear it."
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