BATON ROUGE — During an emotional vigil Thursday, Vice President Biden drew on his family’s misfortunes to comfort relatives of three Baton Rouge police officers slain last week by a lone gunman.
But the vice president also used his speech to call on cops and communities across the country to stop seeing each other as “objects” rather than individuals.
“We’ve got to close the distance, not just in Baton Rouge but all across America, between the neighborhood and law enforcement,” he said, calling for a return to what he said was closer community policing during the 1990s. “We did it before and it worked.”
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, also in attendance, decried the “mindless violence” of the July 17 attack in Baton Rouge and pledged her department’s support for police.
“We will do everything in our power to protect and serve our brave law enforcement officers and their families as well as you protect and serve us,” she said.
The appearance by Biden and Lynch in Baton Rouge comes on the heels of repeated claims by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump that the Obama administration, and Democrats more broadly, has insufficiently supported law enforcement.
“My administration will protect those who protect us,” Trump said during a Reddit discussion Wednesday, a day after criticizing Democrats for not focusing more on police during the Democratic National Convention.
Shooting deaths of police officers up 78% this year. We must restore law and order and protect our great law enforcement officers!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2016
The vigil took place Thursday against a somber but tense backdrop. Residents of Baton Rouge are still struggling to make sense of the deaths not only of the officers — Montrell Jackson, Matthew Gerald and Brad Garafola — but also of Alton Sterling, a black man fatally shot by white Baton Rouge officers 12 days earlier.
Sterling’s shooting, along with the fatal police shooting of another black man, Philando Castile, two days later in Minnesota, spurred protests in Baton Rouge and other cities. Although protests in Baton Rouge have largely died down since the attack on the officers, tensions over race and policing remain here and around the country.
In his half-hour speech, Biden appeared to try to address lingering concerns over police-involved shootings while also expressing support for officers and sympathy for the families of the slain cops.
“Unfortunately, Jill and I know from personal experience a little about what you are going through,” Biden said at the beginning of his speech, mentioning the loss last year of their son Beau Biden to cancer.
The vice president also recounted losing his first wife and daughter in a 1972 traffic accident.
“When I was a young senator, a tractor-trailer broadsided my family Christmas shopping, killed my wife, killed my daughter,” he said. “I got that phone call, that dreaded phone call you all got.”
Biden praised the three officers, offering folksy, colorful anecdotes about each. He then told their widows that they belong to a nationwide “fraternity” for the families of fallen heroes.
“It’s an uncommon fraternity,” he told them, “because your husbands were uncommon men.”
The vice president said the three men’s stories had “touched the souls of the entire nation.
“There’s no way for you to know this since you’ve been so preoccupied, but your sons, your husbands, your dads, their pictures have been on the front page of every paper in the United States of America,” he told the families. “Everybody, everybody in the country is talking about them. Everybody is learning their stories.”
Sounding weary at times, Biden bemoaned the frequency of such national tragedies.
“You know, I’ve spoken at too many of these memorial services, too many of these police officers, too many funerals of brave men and women who kept us safe and watched over our families,” he said.
Biden also used his speech to try to soothe racial tensions.
“This is not about black and white,” he said. “This assassin didn’t make a distinction whether he was killing a white officer or a black officer, he was just killing. He was just finding an excuse to kill. It didn’t have anything to do with what happened earlier. He was just finding an excuse to kill.”
Biden described a meeting between Montrell Jackson’s father and Alton Sterling’s aunt as the beginning of the city’s healing process.
“They ended up embracing, I’m told,” he said. “They ended up praying together because loss is loss is loss.”
In perhaps the most surprising portion of his speech, the vice president criticized police and citizens alike for viewing one another as “objects” instead of “individuals.”
He described sitting down with law enforcement officials to craft the 1994 “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” which Biden said helped reduce crime by funding the hiring of 100,000 police officers nationwide.
“You told me that the better the police know the individuals in the community, not just generically the community, and the better they know the police, the safer they both will be, the cops and the community,” he said.
Biden said that relationships between communities and police had suffered since 2001 or 2002, when resources were redirected to fighting terrorism.
“It used to be that you guys had the resources to show up and hang out at the local Boys and Girls Club,” he said. “You actually got to know the neighborhood.
“You knew the kid, 15 years old, who walked out and stood on the corner in a hoodie,” he said. “You knew the difference between whether he was a gang banger or the next poet laureate in the country.
“You didn’t look at him as just an object.”
The same was true for communities, Biden said.
“The community, when they saw that police officer parked in a car near the corner, they knew she was the mother of two kids, coached the basketball team and looked forward to what everybody else looks forward to: going home and tucking her kid in bed at night,” he said.
“Police have to know … the anxiety that mom feels about opening that door and letting her black child walk out and wonder whether or not they will know who he is,” he continued. “The community has to know that that cop on the beat, the cop riding through on a patrol, who that is: ‘That’s John. He’s a good guy. He’s got three kids.'”
“We’ve got to start seeing one another again,” Biden implored.
Biden’s comments came a day after local officials rejected a proposal that activists said would help improve community policing. On Wednesday, the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council failed to introduce a measure that would have required new police hires to hail from city limits.
The vice president was joined at the vigil by Baton Rouge Mayor Kip Holden and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D). Both called for calm and unity.
“Why not a united Baton Rouge? Why not a united Louisiana? Why not a United States of America?” the mayor asked.
“We have to have to uproot hate and violence and replace it with peace and love,” the governor added.
At the end of the vigil, each of the widows delivered a short speech.
Tonja Garafola described saying goodbye to her husband, Brad, for the last time. The attack on police officers days earlier in Dallas had her worried.
“That morning, I kissed him a little longer and hugged him a little tighter,” she said.
Dechia Gerald recounted meeting her husband — a Marine and Army veteran — at a parade and falling for his bright blue eyes.
“My protector, my lover, my friend, you will remain in my heart forever,” she said.
Trenisha Jackson described meeting Montrell at the Walmart where they both worked.
“My husband was a rare diamond, even billionaires couldn’t afford him,” she said to applause. “But God loved me so much, that he blessed this ol’ country girl with a rare diamond.”
Everyone who knew him, she said, was richer for it.