WASHINGTON -- The problems put on display after the death of Michael Brown in the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, in August "are truly national in scope and that threaten the entire nation," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech on Monday.
Holder, speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, said the nation needs to confront the broken relationship between many law enforcement agencies and the communities that they are supposed to serve.
"Broadly speaking, without mutual understanding between citizens -- whose rights must be respected -- and law enforcement officers -- who make tremendous and often-unheralded personal sacrifices every day to preserve public safety -- there can be no meaningful progress," Holder said in prepared remarks. "Our police officers cannot be seen as an occupying force disconnected from the communities they serve. Bonds that have been broken must be restored. Bonds that never existed must now be created."
Holder, who plans to resign as the nation's top law enforcement official if the Senate confirms U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch as his replacement, visited Ferguson back in August. His Justice Department has launched an investigation into the practices of the Ferguson Police Department, in addition to a separate ongoing federal investigation into the shooting of Brown by former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
In his speech on Monday, Holder said that the "overall system of justice must be strengthened and made more fair" to ensure faith in the justice system.
"Without that deserved faith, without that reasoned belief, there can be no justice. This is not an unreasonable desire -- it is a fundamental American right enshrined in our founding documents," Holder said.
Calling 18-year-old Brown's death a "tragedy," Holder said it "sparked a significant national conversation about the need to ensure confidence in the law enforcement and criminal justice processes" and exposed rifts that "must be addressed -- by all Americans -- in a constructive manner."
Holder condemned the looting and destruction that took place around Ferguson last week, saying it was "deeply unfortunate that this vital conversation was interrupted, and this young man’s memory dishonored, by destruction and looting on the part of a relatively small criminal element."
Holder said that "acts of mindless destruction are not only contrary to the rule of law and the aims of public safety; they threaten to stifle important debate, 'adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars,'" referencing a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "They actively impede social progress by drowning out the legitimate voices of those attempting to make themselves heard. And they are not consistent with the wishes of Michael Brown’s father, who asked that his son be remembered peacefully."
Holder called on "those who seek to lend their voices to important causes and discussions, and who seek to elevate these vital conversations, to do so in ways that respect the gravity of their subject matter."
"These are the moments that remind us of the values that bind us together as a nation. These are the times -- of great challenge and great consequence -- that point the way forward in our ongoing pursuit of a more perfect union," Holder continued. "And these are the lights that will help us beat back the encroaching darkness -- and the stars that will guide us, together, out of this storm."