U.S. attorney general promises crackdown on potential surge in violent crime
In his first major speech as the nation’s top law enforcement official, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions promised Tuesday to launch an aggressive crackdown on a surge in homicides and violent crime that he warned could be the harbinger of a long-term rise in street violence.
“I sense that we could be at a pivotal time,” Sessions told a gathering of state attorneys general in Washington.
Although the nation’s murder and violent crime rates have plummeted in recent decades and are near historic lows, Sessions cited statistics that indicate violent crime rose by 3% and murders by nearly 11% in 2015, compared with the previous year.
Sessions acknowledged that crime has dropped substantially since the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when he served as a federal prosecutor in Alabama. But he said he worries that the recent rise in reported criminal violence in major cities is not “a blip.”
“I’m afraid it represents the beginning of a trend,” he said.
He blamed the increased violence on low police morale, increasing drug use and fear of police in some communities.
In his address Tuesday and during a brief press conference on Monday, Sessions foreshadowed a push by the Justice Department to become more involved in the investigation and prosecution of drug cartels, violent gangs and other groups that fuel street crimes.
He said the Justice Department would create a law enforcement task force to develop strategies to reduce crime, identify flaws in existing laws and policies, and to propose legislation and tactics.
Sessions also vowed to push the Justice Department to be more responsive to local needs while promising an assertive effort to arrest and prosecute those who commit crimes with guns.
Robbers and other criminals may be less likely to commit offenses “if they know they’re going to get popped, they’re going to federal court, they’ll get five years and probably get sent off” to federal prison, Sessions told reporters. “It does have an intimidating effect.”
The attorney general expressed skepticism about the Obama administration’s expansive investigations into police departments for alleged civil rights violations and other abuses. Federal investigators were sharply critical of police in Baltimore and Chicago, for example.
Sessions indicated that those probes contributed to police officers feeling beleaguered from what they believe to be unwarranted criticism. Police also are pulling back because they worry about getting in trouble if they make a mistake, he said.
“We need to help police departments get better, not diminish their effectiveness, and I’m afraid we have done some of that,” Sessions said. “So we’re going to pull back on this.”
His approach is not a surprise. Police unions strongly backed President Trump in his run for the presidency, and Sessions told senators during his confirmation hearing that he was concerned that suing police departments could hurt morale and hamper their effectiveness.
“It’s a difficult thing for a city to be sued by the Department of Justice and to be told that your police department is systemically failing to serve the people of the state or the city,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, adding that “we need to be careful and respectful of [police] departments.”
Sessions told reporters Monday that he was still mulling how to proceed in the Justice Department’s investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
In January, Justice issued a report that found the city’s force suffered from racial bias, used force excessively, was poorly trained and was poorly overseen. It is negotiating with the city on a consent decree to address the problems.
“I’m really worried about Chicago with the surge in murders,” Sessions said. “One of the metrics that has been reported in Chicago shows a dramatic reduction in stops and arrests in Chicago by the Police Department.”
Any settlement of the case, he said, should “make sure we advance good policing strategies and not undermine them.”
He waded into the controversial topic of legalizing marijuana and said the department was weighing how to approach the increasing number of states, including California, that are decriminalizing the drug even though it remains a federal crime to sell or possess it.
The Obama administration generally took a hands-off approach and told federal prosecutors to focus on foreign-based drug cartels and criminal syndicates peddling the drug, not local users.
“States can pass whatever laws they chose,” Sessions told the attorneys general. “But I’m not sure we’re going to be a better, healthier nation if we have marijuana being sold at every corner grocery store.”
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