WASHINGTON — Attorney General Jeff Sessions is promising his Justice Department will lead the charge in helping cities fight violent crime, and police chiefs are ready with their wish-lists.
More technology to trace guns after shootings. More grant money. More intelligence analysts to help dismantle gangs. More protective gear and equipment. As the head of one police officers’ union put it, “We need more of everything.”
But Sessions, who cut his teeth as a federal prosecutor in Mobile, Alabama, at the height of the drug war in the 1980s, has inherited a federal government that built itself to fight terrorism since 9/11 and, more recently, to combat cybercrime.
Since taking office, Sessions has spoken repeatedly about a spike in murders. He and President Donald Trump ordered the creation of a crime-fighting task force, bringing together the heads of the major law enforcement agencies. And they seem to be counting on tighter border security to stop a flow of drugs and reduce crime.
But they have yet to detail how federal law enforcement should juggle priorities or offer new money for crime-fighting, especially in the face of Trump’s plan to slash nonmilitary budgets. Some clarity could come Thursday when the administration unveils its budget proposal.
“He’ll find out very quickly that you can’t pull people off all these other things just to go do that,” said Robert Anderson, who was the FBI’s most senior criminal investigator until his retirement in 2015. Anderson joined the bureau in the 1990s, when combating violence and drugs was its top challenge. “Now he’s walking into a much different Justice Department and FBI.”
Kerry Sleeper, assistant director of the FBI office that works with local law enforcement, said that after decades of declines in violence, police chiefs are coming to grips with a new uptick and asking for federal help.
What they’d like to see:
- In Milwaukee, Police Chief Edward Flynn said he would like an expansion of the work done in that city by the Justice Department’s Violence Reduction Network. It teams officers with deputy U.S. marshals and agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration to target high-crime areas. “It’s encouraging to have an incoming administration take an interest in the spikes in violence in central cities,” he told The Associated Press.
- In Baltimore, which recorded 318 homicides last year, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has said he would like federal agencies to double the number of agents assigned to cities experiencing spikes in violence.
- In Chicago, singled out by the White House for its surge in shootings, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson has said he would welcome more agents and money for mentorship and after-school programs to help kids in violent neighborhoods and, in turn, reduce crime.
Other cities want help processing evidence, tracing guns and prosecuting drug traffickers and dealers as they combat heroin and opioid addiction.
More chiefs are asking the FBI for its help with intelligence-gathering to thwart crime, said Stephen Richardson, assistant director for the FBI’s criminal division.
Making violent crime a priority is a departure for a Justice Department that has viewed as more urgent the prevention of cyberattacks from foreign criminals, counterterrorism and the threat of homegrown violent extremism. And while local police say they want more help fighting violence, such a plan could put new pressure on Justice Department agencies already strapped for resources.
“Our budget’s been eroding,” Thomas Brandon, acting ATF director, told a congressional committee last week. The ranks of the agency’s special agents hit an eight-year low in fiscal year 2013 and have not grown dramatically since then.
Sessions’ focus fits his background. His career as a prosecutor began when there was bipartisan agreement in Washington that the best way to fight crime was with long, mandatory prison sentences. And he views today’s relatively low crime rates as a sign that those policies worked. Just last week, he underscored his priority in a memo to the nation’s federal prosecutors that they should use all available resources to take down the worst offenders.
In contrast, the Obama administration’s Justice Department focused its aid to local police on improving community relations.
The federal government has long played a role in fighting crime through grants and partnerships. Agents assigned to field offices work with local police to share intelligence on gangs and shootings, hunt fugitives and probe bank robberies, among other things. Constance Hester-Davis, special agent in charge of the ATF’s field division in New Orleans, said her agents routinely work alongside local counterparts, even attending community meetings.
“At the end of the day, crime is a state and local concern,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank. “However, what police chiefs say is the federal government does have a responsibility, particularly when they prosecute.”
Such cooperation can work. Oakland, California, police saw killings fall from 126 in 2012 to 85 in 2016, two years after FBI agents were embedded in the homicide unit. Ten agents now share an office with Oakland detectives, offering help gathering evidence, collecting DNA, chasing leads and bringing federal prosecutions that carry longer sentences in far-away prisons. Detectives solved at least 60 percent of their cases last year, compared to about 30 percent in 2010, said Russell Nimmo, FBI supervisory special agent on the Oakland Safe Streets Task Force.
“It’s very complementary to what our mission is,” Nimmo said. “We’re a big organization. The challenge for our leadership is determining how many resources to allocate to each of those competing priorities.”
Richardson, who formed the first FBI task force in Louisiana to combat violent criminals, said the new focus will mean shifting resources in ways that are yet to be seen. The FBI is finalizing a strategy to “surge” resources, including agents, in certain cities this summer.
“We won’t be able to do all the cities we’d like to at once,” Richardson said. “I firmly believe it will make a difference.”