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How this top Justice official's family history impacted his view of crime and justice


On any given day, the Justice Department could engineer the takedown of a Mexican drug cartel or lead the search for cyber thieves who steal millions of dollars. From international manhunts to plain old American political corruption, NPR's Carrie Johnson recently sat down with the man in charge of such efforts.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Kenneth Polite grew up around law enforcement. His dad spent 37 years on the force in New Orleans. His brother still works as a police officer in Houston. The family also has firsthand experience with gun violence.

KENNETH POLITE: I carry the memory of my half-brother with me every day.

JOHNSON: In 2004, his half-brother died of gunshot wounds, an apparent act of retaliation on the streets of New Orleans.

POLITE: It is someone who we lost all too early. And unfortunately for me, it represents the reality that is playing out in too many parts of our community, our families, where we are losing truly talented individuals to street violence on a daily basis.

JOHNSON: That tragic experience influences how Polite views his job as an assistant attorney general inside the Justice Department - as a problem solver for communities.

POLITE: My view from the very earliest days of contemplating becoming a prosecutor wasn't to put people in jail. That's a byproduct of it. But it was frankly to try to save lives and to prevent other individuals and other families from having the same experience.

JOHNSON: Polite started his career as a prosecutor in New York before going home to New Orleans to become the U.S. attorney during the Obama years. His office convicted former Mayor Ray Nagin on public corruption charges and former NFL player Darren Sharper on rape charges.

But Polite has the experience that sticks with him is the sentencing in a big drug trafficking and murder case. One of the defendants thanked Polite and asked the prosecutor to serve as a mentor to his son.

POLITE: I think that speaks to the type of community trust that was always at the forefront of the work that we did.

JOHNSON: As the man in charge of the Criminal Division, Polite now manages 1,200 people stationed in the U.S. and around the world. He says it's the dream of a lifetime even though he's too busy to eat breakfast and usually has to be reminded to find time for lunch.

Violent crime is near the top of his agenda as murders and gun crimes linger at high levels in many cities. Polite says the strategy is twofold - taking the most dangerous people off the streets and spending more on social services.

POLITE: The notion of us having greater community trust, greater connection between law enforcement and the people that they serve and how that ultimately fosters greater public safety - I've never viewed those as being in tension at all. In fact, they are very much aligned.

JOHNSON: Other priorities in the new job include more accountability for corporate and white-collar crime and a focus on cybercrime and ransomware schemes. Those cases can be hard to build, but Polite cites his courtship of a fellow student at Harvard as a reason not to count him out. From his first day of school in Cambridge, Polite says he chased Florencia Greer.

POLITE: I pursued her for many, many years, got rejected many times until, at the very end of college, I wore her down.

JOHNSON: They married 21 years ago. Greer Polite is a star in her own right, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania. Polite says the relationship taught him lessons he brings to work every day.

POLITE: Persistence - right? - perseverance. Like, it is an absolutely valuable quality for all of us.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOMMY GUERRERO'S "AZUCAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.