WASHINGTON -- Former Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday drew parallels between Black Lives Matter protests and the civil rights movement, dismissed the notion floated by the FBI director that the so-called "Ferguson effect" may be resulting in increases in crime, and said the country is still too afraid to talk about race.
Holder also said that it may make sense for the federal government to only distribute grants to police departments that meet certain standards, which could help rein in abusive behavior by law enforcement. He suggested that the Justice Department, and perhaps the federal government more broadly, could tie grants to "some sort of conduct assessment" to ensure the money only goes to departments that "conduct themselves in appropriate ways." He added that such a proposal would likely require congressional approval.
Holder, who made civil rights and criminal justice reform signature issues in his Justice Department, stepped down as the nation's top law enforcement official in April upon the confirmation of Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
He spoke with a handful of reporters on Wednesday, along with Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who chronicled the civil rights movement and the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Taylor will receive the 2015 Records of Achievement Award from the National Archives Foundation on Wednesday evening, and Holder will interview him at the event.
Branch and Holder spoke about the differences between the civil rights movement a half a century ago and the current struggle for racial equality.
"I think many of the issues are in some ways the same," Holder said. "It's a question of people wanting to be treated in appropriate ways, having their government respect them and accord them the rights to which they're entitled as American citizens. Different issues, but I think it's at some level, the same basic concerns, the same basic desires."
Holder said there is no "unquestioned leader" who is a modern analogue to King, but added that such a figure might not be necessary.
"Do we have here a moment, or do we have a movement? That, I think, is still up in the air," Holder said. "From my perspective, I'm not so certain."
Holder, who traveled to Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown in August 2014, also disputed FBI Director James Comey's speculation that police officers' fear of being caught in viral videos is leading to an increase in crime. Holder has praised Comey's speech about the history of tension between law enforcement and communities of color, and did so again on Wednesday, calling his comments "gutsy." But said he believes the comments on the "Ferguson effect" aren't based in fact.
"I don't agree with the comments that he's made about, or the connection he's drawn, between the so-called 'Ferguson effect' and this rise in crime," Holder said, adding that Comey seemed to be relying on anecdotes rather than data.
"You can't base policy on anecdotal evidence," Holder said. "It's hard for us to understand why crime dropped to historic lows over the last 40 years. I think it's probably equally difficult -- or even more difficult -- to explain why crime has gone up in some places, violent crime has gone up in some places, over the past 12 months. But I don't think it's connected to the so-called Ferguson effect."
Holder's comments echoed those of President Barack Obama, who told police chiefs at a speech in Chicago on Tuesday that it was important to "stick with the facts" and not "cherrypick data or use anecdotal evidence" when talking about criminal justice. Many chiefs there said they don't believe officers are somehow backing down over fear of going viral.
"I frankly don't think police officers are laying down on the job," Holder said. "I don't think they're taking a knee, as I saw somebody put it. I don't think police officers are taking a knee, they're out there doing what they went to their job to do."
"What I said then, I think is still pretty accurate," Holder said. "Talking about racial things, especially given this nation's history when it comes to racial matters, is a very, very difficult thing to do from both sides. We've become quite adept at finding ways not to deal with racial issues, and I think that is to the detriment of our country and our ability to make progress."