Where Do We Go From Here?

By Joyce White Vance

Joyce White Vance
Joyce White Vance

These past few weeks have been difficult for our country. The deaths in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas are nothing short of tragic, and they raise fundamental questions about who we are as a society. We must have trust between communities and law enforcement if we are to be a safe society. How can this trust be rebuilt? How can every person in this country be guaranteed equal justice under the law?

As a part of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama plays a key role in answering these questions. Our mission is contained within our very name: our responsibility is to work to ensure equal justice for all Americans. Because of this core value, we support law enforcement in its commitment to keep all of us safe. We also seek to ensure that all Americans’ civil rights are protected. Recently, some have questioned whether those who support black lives can also support blue lives. In our view, the answer is a resounding yes.

The killings of the five police officers in Dallas — Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarriga, and now three in Baton Rouge — Montrell Jackson, Brad Garafola and Matthew Gerald — were unconscionable. In order for us to move forward in a meaningful way, we must respect law enforcement and acknowledge that they risk their lives to protect public safety. The police officers in Baton Rouge were ambushed; those in Dallas died protecting a public protest that originated from the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The commitment of law enforcement is essential to a safe, just society.

Bad actors, as we are all too frequently reminded, live in many different communities. They do not, however, define those communities — whether police departments or minority groups. So how do we move forward and rebuild trust between the police and the communities they protect? For us, one way is to help the community understand the Justice Department’s role in enforcing this nation’s civil rights laws. Although we work with law enforcement every day and overwhelmingly see officers and agents who are committed to doing what is right, we will not sit idly by if police use excessive force. We have, and will continue, to prosecute officers who violate our citizens’ civil rights, as we did, successfully, just this past week.

At the same time, we are committed to the success of Birmingham’s work as a pilot city in the Justice Department’s Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Efforts have been underway since the fall of 2015 to strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve and protect. As part of this program, the Justice Department, community stakeholders, academics, and civil rights advocates are developing a plan that will enhance procedural justice, reduce bias, and support reconciliation in local communities. I welcome your feedback in this program; it is essential.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Although we have work to do, the obstacles to justice are not insurmountable.  This is not the time for hate or indifference. This is the time for us to set aside differences and old misunderstandings and come together to promote good law enforcement, a safe community, and an understanding that our civil rights are precious.  It is our obligation to protect them, and it is going to take all of us to do this work.

Joyce White Vance serves as the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama.