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BALTIMORE (AP) — Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told the nation's oldest civil rights organization on Tuesday that building public confidence in law enforcement "is one of our great challenges." He said police have a special responsibility to follow the law, and citizens have an obligation to respect the police.
Rosenstein spoke to the NAACP's national convention in Baltimore, a city that experienced unrest following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Rosenstein, a former Maryland U.S. attorney, noted that one of the last cases he prosecuted before leaving Baltimore was against seven police officers for abusing their authority. Last week, two of those officers who allegedly robbed people who were physically restrained pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy. The case continues against the other five.
Rosenstein said prosecuting corrupt police is critical, but emphasized that most police are public servants who want to help.
"Cases like that are extremely important, but those corrupt officers do not represent all of police," Rosenstein said. "Most officers are honorable people who try every day to do the right thing, but we need them to be role models. They have a special responsibility to follow the rules."
"At the same time, citizens have an obligation to show respect for the police," he said. "Building a good relationship is a two-way street. We all need to help build relationships based on mutual respect."
Rosenstein spoke for about five and a half minutes, focusing on law enforcement concerns, then left without taking questions or mentioning the pressure mounting in the White House for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to resign. Rosenstein also made no mention of Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion with Donald Trump's campaign.
Rosenstein told the audience that a Justice Department task force on crime reduction and public safety will deliver preliminary recommendations this week, with a final report released to President Donald Trump next year. He said the department is developing new programs and strategies to work better with communities and state and local agencies to reduce crime.
"Our goal is not to fill prisons. Our goal is to save lives," Rosenstein said, a comment that brought applause from the audience. "And to do that, building public trust in law enforcement is one of our great challenges."
Rosenstein, the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, spoke after Trump declined a speaking invitation, which led the nation's oldest civil rights organization to question the president's commitment to his African-American constituents. Trump was the first GOP presidential nominee in years not to address the NAACP last year.
Rosenstein referred to Trump's inaugural address during his remarks to the organization, when the president said that Americans "want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves."
"These are just and reasonable demands," Rosenstein said.
Derrick Johnson, the NAACP's interim president, welcomed Rosenstein, but said that "under the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice has been working to erode the progress made in the past eight years and dismantle policies that benefited the African-American community."
"Since President Trump declined to speak at this year's convention, we are hopeful that Deputy A.G. Rosenstein conveys to the President and the Attorney General the concerns we have about the direction of the judicial system in this country," Johnson said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke after Rosenstein and criticized the president.
"We will outlast Trump," Jackson said. "We will outlast this dark night."
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