02.04.14

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy Support of Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a regular oversight hearing.  I appreciated the Attorney General’s cooperation and willingness to appear before the Committee to discuss a variety of important matters.  His testimony reminded us of the Justice Department’s central role in carrying out the policy of Congress to support our nation’s law enforcement officers and first responders.  One vital program that provides support to the families of fallen law enforcement officers and other first responders is the Public Safety Officers Benefit Program (PSOB).  This vital program began in 1976, and I am proud to have authored legislation that has expanded and improved the PSOB in important ways so that we honor the sacrifices made by our law enforcement officers and first responders.  From my Hometown Heroes Survivors Benefits Act to the Dale Long Emergency Medical Service Providers Protection Act, I have fought to make sure that all of the families who have lost an officer or first responders are honored.  We got these laws passed to honor the service of these dedicated first responders and we exercised considerable oversight to make sure the program was administered fairly and efficiently.  I thank the Attorney General for his leadership and commitment to making this program more responsive to Congressional intent and more effective for grieving families.

The PSOB program is a reminder to Americans about the dangers law enforcement officers face every day.  Sadly, in 2013, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund reported that 111 Federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty. This preliminary data reflects an eight percent decrease from the number of officer fatalities in 2012, and amounts to the fewest line of duty deaths in more than five decades.  This trend is good news, but Congress must not let up on its efforts to increase officer safety.   Every single line of duty death represents an enormous tragedy for the families and communities of these officers. 

For decades, Congress has been steadfast in its support of law enforcement officers, and has traditionally maintained policies to increase officer safety and well-being.  Until recently, Congress has acted decisively in support of those who dedicate themselves to protecting their communities.  Unfortunately, there are some in Congress who do not believe that support of law enforcement officers and first responders is a Federal responsibility.   I disagree.  I remain committed to fighting for all of our state and local law enforcement officials.

Last fall, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported two important bills to support our nation’s law enforcement officers.  Both bills would help protect the lives of law enforcement.  Both have been approved for immediate passage by all Democratic senators.  Unfortunately, there are some Republican senators who continue to obstruct passage of both bills in the Senate.  It is a shame that anyone would put ideology ahead of the safety of our law enforcement officers. 

More than a decade ago, Senator Ben Nighthorse-Campbell and I authored the Bulletproof Vest Partnership Grant Act, working across the aisle to create a grant program that has assisted state and local law enforcement agencies in purchasing more than one million protective vests.  Between 2000 and 2010, the Bulletproof Vest Partnership has passed this body as a standalone three times, each time by unanimous consent.  Unfortunately, since 2012, and despite the fact that Senator Grassley and I developed a bipartisan reauthorization, a few Republican senators have blocked passage of this bill and thwarted the vast majority of senators who want to see this program reauthorized so that it can continue to save the lives of those who keep our communities safe. 

There is no dispute that the Bulletproof Vest Partnership program saves lives.  In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in February 2012, the Government Accountability Office noted that since 1987, bulletproof vests have saved the lives of more than 3,000 law enforcement officers.  I am disappointed we cannot all come together to promote the safety of our nation’s law enforcement officers who risk and sacrifice every day to ensure our safety.  It is our duty to support them and I call on all senators to stand with them and pass this important legislation.

The Judiciary Committee also reported the National Blue Alert Act, a bipartisan bill that passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority of 406-2.  The National Blue Alert Act would create a national alert system to notify all state and Federal law enforcement agencies with critical information when an officer is injured or killed in the line of duty.  This bill is sponsored by Senators Cardin and Graham, and I am a proud cosponsor.  This bill would help apprehend a fugitive suspected of seriously injuring or killing a law enforcement officer and who is fleeing through multiple jurisdictions.  It defies common sense that any senator would object to this legislation, which contains no fiscal authorization and is universally supported by law enforcement leaders across the country. 

In recent weeks, some senators have expressed concern for the safety of law enforcement officers in the context of the Senate confirmation process.  I do not question that these senators are as concerned as I am about the safety of law enforcement officers.  But I would invite those who express concern for the well-being of law enforcement officers to support the two bills I have discussed today and end the needless obstruction of this proven, common-sense legislation. 

In the coming weeks, as the Senate moves closer to recognizing our nation’s fallen law enforcement officers during National Police Week in May, I hope to come to the floor and seek unanimous consent to pass these long-stalled bills.  If any senator intends to object to either of these bills, they should be willing to join me on the floor and explain those objections to the thousands of law enforcement officers and families that will soon gather in Washington to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their fellow citizens.  

Our law enforcement officers risk their lives every day to keep us safe.  They deserve a Congress that does more than just talk about their service.  They deserve protection.  We cannot bring back a fallen officer but we can and we must work together to protect the next one who may come under fire.  I call on my friends from across the aisle to join my effort to protect law enforcement officers by immediately reauthorizing my Bulletproof Vest Partnership program and by passing Senator Cardin’s National Blue Alert bill.  Together we can honor the service of all of those who keep us safe. 

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