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Politics

His brother was killed in 2004. Now he fights violent crime as a top Justice official

Kenneth Polite, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, speaks during a news conference at the department in October.
Roberto Schmidt
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AFP via Getty Images
Kenneth Polite, the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, speaks during a news conference at the department in October.

The Justice Department's reach sweeps from international manhunts to plain old American political corruption, as its 1,200 Criminal Division employees around the world may engineer the takedown of a Mexican drug cartel one day and lead the search for cyberthieves stealing millions of dollars the next.

How the head of that division, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite, approaches its mission is rooted much closer to home: the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where he saw the devastation of street violence firsthand.

Polite's half brother died in 2004 after being shot in an apparent act of retaliation.

"I carry the memory of my half brother with me every day," Polite said. "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."

Polite, who turns 46 on Jan. 30, views his job as a problem-solver for communities. He didn't start out wanting to put people in prison. That, he said, is a "byproduct."

"It was frankly to try to save lives and to prevent other individuals and other families from having the same experience," he said.

One moment in the courtroom made an especially big impact on him

The son of teenage parents, Polite lived in public housing as a child. Visiting prisons with his father, a 37-year veteran of the New Orleans police force, and meeting with other family members who were locked up gave him a broader view of crime and justice than many prosecutors, he said. On top of that, his brother works as a law enforcement officer in Houston.

He started his career as a prosecutor in New York and then returned home to New Orleans as a U.S. attorney during the Obama years, when his office convicted former Mayor Ray Nagin on public corruption charges and former NFL player Darren Sharper on rape charges.

Those headline-grabbing victories didn't stick with him as much as a moment during the sentencing in a big drug-trafficking and murder case. One of the defendants facing a mandatory life sentence stood up in the courtroom, thanked Polite and then asked the prosecutor to serve as a mentor to his son.

Turns out, the families attended the same church. Polite's eldest daughter had been tutoring the son, sometimes in the Polite family home.

"I think that speaks to the type of community trust that was always at the forefront of the work that we did," he said.

Polite has kept violent crime near the top of his agenda since he was sworn in this past July, as murders and gun crimes linger at high levels in many cities. His strategy is twofold: taking the most dangerous people off the streets and spending more on social services and other violence prevention programs.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite of the Justice Department's Criminal Division speaks during a news conference at the department on Oct. 26.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/
AP
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite of the Justice Department's Criminal Division speaks during a news conference at the department on Oct. 26.

His relationship with his wife has taught him lessons he brings to work each day

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 cited his courtship of a fellow student at Harvard University as a reason not to count him out. From their first day of school in Cambridge, Mass., Polite said, he chased Florencia Greer without much success.

"Got rejected many times until at the very end of college I wore her down," he recalled with a smile.

The couple married 21 years ago and have two children: a 17-year-old headed to college and a fourth-grader with a sunny disposition and a lovely singing voice.

Florencia Greer Polite is now a star in her own right as a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania. Kenneth Polite said the relationship taught him lessons that he brings to his work every day.

"Persistence, right?" he said. "Perseverance. It is an absolutely valuable quality for all of us."

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