Remarks on Signing Legislation Extending Critical Support to Law Enforcement and First Responders
The President. Hello, everyone. Sorry to keep you waiting for a few minutes. We were doing a little bit of a check-in with—making sure everybody is clear to come in, in terms of health.
Anyway, thank you all for being here. Please, sit down. Please, sit down. I keep forgetting that—I see all my Senate colleagues, and I'm so unaccustomed to them standing up for me that I—[laughter]—no reason why they should either. [Laughter] They should be standing for Pat. Pat, you had a great speech. Thank you.
Okay. Well, Vice President Harris, Attorney General Garland, and Secretary Mayorkas, I want to thank you for your leadership.
And in a moment, I'll be signing into law three bills that extend critical support to our law enforcement and first responders and the communities they serve. And I want to thank everyone who worked together to pass each of these bipartisan bills. I emphasize "bipartisan" bills.
Before I turn to the specifics of the bills, I want to say that when you look at what our communities need and what our law enforcement is being asked to do, it's going to require more resources, not fewer resources.
That's why my administration is investing in the community policing we know works and the training and partnership that law enforcement and our communities have requested and in community-based programs and interventions that can stop violence before it starts.
Think about what we ask a police officer. We ask them to be everything from counselors to law enforcement officers to the folks who have to take down the bad guy. I mean, everything in between.
And so just this morning the Department of Justice released a significant new investment in community policing through Community Oriented Policing Services. Everything has an acronym; it's called COPS program.
These grants, which total nearly $140 million, will go to 183 law enforcement agencies and allow them to fund over 1,000 new law enforcement positions and to fund other initiatives to build legitimacy and trust in communities, to address gun violence and other violent crimes, and to combat hate and domestic extremism, and to enhance the response to people in crisis.
You know, in addition, this announcement, along with the historic funding in the American Rescue Plan, means communities have the resources now available for the community violence intervention than—more than they ever had before.
We're talking about programs like violence interrupters, who work as a complement to police in identifying those most likely to be involved in gun violence, stopping it from happening to begin, and put those at risk—who put those people at risk, and put them on a better road to life so we can—we get them—we divert them before they get into the bad stream to begin with. And I want to thank the folks in front of me for doing that. And I want to thank the Attorney General—Attorney General Garland—for leading these efforts as well.
Today's investment, and the bills that I'm about to sign, share a goal of helping law enforcement officers and first responders be the protectors and the partners our communities need.
The first bill I'll sign is the COPS Counseling Act. The law is modeled after successful laws in Nevada, and I want to thank Senator Cortez Masto. Thank you very much for what you did as attorney general in Nevada and what you continue to do.
My good friend Senator Leahy, who's been working on these things for a long time. And Todd Young and Thom Tillis. Representative David Trone and Reschenthaler. Where—there you are. I was looking around. I couldn't see you. I apologize.
And by the way, David worked closely with our special guest here today, Angela Bomba, the widow of Montgomery County police officer Thomas Bomba, whose painful experience helped inspire this bill.
Every day, our Nation's police officers answer the call and confront scenes that can take a toll on them, as well, and leave them traumatized. You know, it's not fundamentally different than folks in the battlefield. An awful lot of people come home without any physical wounds, but come home with posttraumatic stress, and they're responding to terrible incidents.
Well, the same happens for our law enforcement officers, arriving at homicide scenes, handling child abuse cases. As they confront these situations, they need to—we need to help them recover from the invisible wounds that their work can inflict. These wounds are no different from wounds that, as I said, our military encounters on the battlefield.
According to one study, law enforcement officers are 54-percent more likely to die by suicide than the average American because they're under such enormous pressure and they see things none of us ever see.
The vast majority of law enforcement officers tell us that peer support programs are the most helpful mental health resource there is. And that makes sense. If you hold for just a second, it makes you—when you think about it, you know, law enforcement, as well as the military, all have taught to be "stand your own"; you know: "Don't ask for anything. You can do it. Just take care of yourself." And it's an enormous burden we put on people. And it's really difficult. I've learned, working so diligently with the military community, it's so hard to get them to say: "Hey, I need some help. I need some help."
I want you to know: A wound that is imposed on your mind is no different than if you broke your arm or got shot in the leg. It's the same thing. It's the same thing. And it deserves to be treated. And it deserves the respect that you—that goes along with that.
Because the strongest support and best guidance often come from someone who has walked in their shoes. However, many officers don't access peer support because they have concerns about privacy and confidentiality, and only about half the States have confidentiality protections.
But this bill—and I want to thank the Congress for this—encourages first responders agencies to adapt peer counseling programs; require the Department of Justice to make the best practices and resources publicly available for people who want to become peer support mentors; and ensure confidentiality to Federal law enforcement officers who use peer counseling services, with the only exception being admission of a criminal conduct and/or a threat of serious physical harm.
My hope is: By giving more effective officers—more officers access to confidentiality and high-quality mental health resources, we're going to reduce the stigma around seeking help and lead to better policing and prevent suicides. Put simply: We'll get more officers the help they need so they can better help the communities they serve.
The next bill I'll be signing is the Protect America's First Responders Act. I want to thank Senator Gillibrand and thank her very much. And, Bill, I want to thank you—Pascrell, and Brian Fitzpatrick, Joe Courtney—they're all dear neighbors where I used to represent—for their leadership in supporting those who have—are disabled or killed in the service of their community.
You know, when our Nation's firefighters, disaster relief workers, EMT, law enforcement officers, and other first responders respond to that radio alert, they run toward the danger while others are running away. They know there's a risk of them getting injured or worse.
And when they go to work each day, their families wait for that phone call. Are they going to get that phone call that something has happened? Public Safety Officers' Benefits Program was originally established to provide death benefits to officers who fall in the line of duty so that if, God forbid, their family gets that call, they don't also lose their house, their car, and they're left bereft, in terms of economic capacity.
It has since been expanded to provide disability and education benefits, and increases the number of first responders who are eligible, including children born after the fact. And so it's really important. And you know—and, Pat, you and I used to discuss this all the time in Judiciary 120 years ago here. [Laughter]
But the truth is, you know, with over a thousand claims a year to review, the program has been slow and inconsistent when it comes to reviewing claims and supporting first responders and families, including those who responded on 9/11.
The law has to change, and you're doing that. You're changing the law to do that. And it's going to make sure this program processes claims more quickly and speeds up payments; makes clear the public safety officers who are acting in an emergency situation, no matter the jurisdiction, are covered; and broadly defines what it means to be "permanently disabled."
Before this law, first responders permanently disabled in the line of duty were only eligible for benefits programs if they could never again perform any of the compensated work that they performed. Now what you guys and women have changed is, the—you allowed the disabled first responders who can't do the work they had been trained for, but still can perform tasks and take on work that's therapeutic for them, to do these jobs without losing the benefits, at the same time getting both the pay and the benefit, if it's in a different area.
There's a line inscribed in the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial; you've all seen it many, many times: "In valor there is hope." "In valor there is hope." Well, as one of the leaders of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Foundation pointed out, this bill restores their sense of valor, and with that comes a lot of hope.
The third and final bill I'll sign is named Jaime Zappa [Zapata]* and Victor—excuse me—Avila—I didn't want to mispronounce it; I hope I pronounced it correctly because it's important—Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who have—were ambushed by a drug cartel hitman in Mexico in 2011.
The assailants tried to pull Agent Zappa [Zapata]* from the driver's seat of the vehicle—and shooting him six times. And Agent Avila, despite also having been shot, was able to push Zappa's [Zapata's]* leg down on the accelerator and escape the attack. Unfortunately, Agent Zappa [Zapata]* later died of his wounds.
That tragedy was compounded by another tragedy: a miscarriage of justice. The murder convictions against the two killers responsible for the murder were overturned on appeal. It was overturned because the law didn't make clear the Department of Justice can prosecute anyone who kills or attempts to kill a Federal law enforcement officer outside the United States.
Thankfully, the murder remains—the murderers remain in prison conviction of—being convicted of other incidents stemming from that same incident. But this bill is going to protect agents serving abroad and send a message to drug cartels, terrorists, and criminals wherever they operate that if you attack our agents, you will not escape our justice.
I want to thank Senator Coons and Senator Cornyn for the—for that legislation. And Representative Henry—excuse me, Henry Cuellar, and Michael McCaul, Steve Chabot, and other leaders for their leadership on this bill.
In just a minute, I'll sign these bills. And they're good and important bipartisan bills.
But I want to thank the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers and other law enforcement organizations that have been constructive players in negotiating over meaningful police reform.
So I'm asking the bipartisan leaders here today to come together with them, as you've done before, to finally pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But that's next.
And now I want to sign each of these bills. I want to—and God bless you all, and may God protect all our law enforcement officers and first responders throughout the Nation.
Thank you. I'm going to sign these bills.
And by the way, there's a tradition where you sign the bill, you give the signing pen to the authors of the bill. But I don't have that many pens with me. [Laughter] So I'm going to make sure everyone will get a pen. Everyone will get a pen. I'm not trying to hoard the pens, guys. [Laughter]
Hi. What's your name? Nice to meet you. How old are you?
Damascus, MD, resident Jake Bomba. Seven.
The President. Seven years old. Well, you're—you are. What grade are you in?
Jake Bomba. First.
The President. First grade. Well, that's great, man. Thank you for being here. Are you okay?
Maybe after this, I can show you around the White House. Do you want to see it?
[At this point, Jake Bomba nodded.]
Okay. Here we go.
[The President signed the Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support (COPS) Counseling Act.]
[The President handed the signing pen to Jake Bomba.]
Okay. "To amend . . ."—well, I'm not going to read it out.
[The President signed the Protecting America's First Responders Act of 2021 and handed the signing pen to Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand.]
Sen. Gillibrand. God Bless you, Mr. President.
The President. All right, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
All right, now I'm going to sign the third bill.
Okay. "To amend title 18 of the U.S. Code, to further protect our officers and employees of the United States, and for other purposes."
[The President signed the Jaime Zapata and Victor Avila Federal Officers and Employees Act and handed the signing pen to Senator Christopher A. Coons.]
Q. Mr. President, what will your message be to the leaders of Canada and Mexico today?
The President. I'll be happy to answer your questions while I—after I meet with them—with all the leaders.
So thank you all so very, very much.
NOTE: The President spoke at 10 a.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Damascus, MD, resident Angela Tripp Bomba; and Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota and Jesus Ivan Quezada Piña, members of the Los Zetas drug cartel, who were sentenced to life in prison in connection with the killing of U.S. Customs and Enforcement Agency Agent Special Jaime Zapata in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, on February 15, 2011. He also referred to H.R. 1280. S. 1502, S. 1511, and S. 921, approved November 18, were assigned, respectively, Public Law Nos. 117-60, 117-61, and 117-59.
* White House correction.
Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on Signing Legislation Extending Critical Support to Law Enforcement and First Responders Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/353477