Citing two years of surging violence in Charlotte, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to North Carolina’s largest city Monday to announce a new partnership between federal, state and local law enforcement groups to better coordinate crime-fighting efforts.
Without announcing many details, Sessions said the new violent crime task forces in Charlotte and Pittsburgh would be modeled after the multistate effort that led to the arrests earlier this year of 83 violent gang members in the Carolinas and along the East Coast.
Since gang activity already is the priority of the Charlotte FBI’s existing Safe Streets Task Force, the new effort will focus on other types of violent crime – including carjacking, bank robberies, kidnappings and extortion.
Meanwhile, Sessions defended the Trump administration’s crackdown on crime, saying it will make neighborhoods safer both in Charlotte and in cities around the country.
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“Some people have to be prosecuted,” Sessions said. “I wish it wasn’t so. I wish we had a better solution than jail. But we don’t.”
The attorney general’s comments drew a pointed response Tuesday from the head of a group advocating for the reform of the criminal justice system.
“The tough-on-crime, racially tinged policies of the 1980s fueled mass incarceration but did not make us safer,” said Jake Sussman, a former Charlotte attorney and now managing director of Harvard University’s Fair Punishment Project.
Instead of returning to that approach, Charlotte and other communities have been better served by leaders and policies “focused on understanding and addressing the root causes of crime” and which offer such innovations as alternatives to prosecution and improved care for mental health and substance abuse, Sussman said.
Sessions unveiled the Justice Department’s new program for Charlotte before about 75 law enforcement officials at the uptown offices of Andrew Murray, the newly appointed U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
The visit, which Sessions earlier said would give him the opportunity “to personally observe the crime problem” in Charlotte, also allowed the attorney general to focus public attention on the Trump administration’s law-enforcement objectives. Those goals have been drowned out for most of President Donald Trump’s first year in office by the constant drumbeat over his campaign’s ties to Russia and the increasingly bitter debate over the impartiality of the federal prosecutors and FBI agents involved in the probe.
The Department of Justice announced ahead of time that the attorney general would not be taking media questions in Charlotte, and Sessions left the room immediately after his speech. When asked what Sessions specifically had done in Charlotte to better inform himself about local crime issues, a Department of Justice spokeswoman did not respond.
During a Friday speech in Washington, D.C., Sessions announced the creation of “Project Safe Neighborhood” tasks forces for Charlotte and other cities, along with his plan to deploy up to 260 additional federal prosecutors in coming months to confront violent crime.
In Charlotte, Sessions gave a version of the same speech. But he went off script several times to tell police officers nationwide that despite greater public scrutiny of their tactics, the Trump administration “has your back.”
“Police are not the problem,” Sessions said. “They are the solution to the problem.”
As Sessions sees it, the problem is the unexpected rise in murders and other violent crimes that have hit Charlotte and other U.S. cities over the past two years. In Charlotte, he said, violent crime has risen by a quarter, robberies by a third, killings by 42 percent.
“And as we all know, these are not just numbers – these are moms, dads, daughters, spouses, friends and neighbors,” Sessions said. “I will not accept rising crime. Plain and simple, we will not allow the progress made by our women and men in blue over the past two decades to simply slip through our fingers now. We will not cede a community, a block, or a street corner to violent thugs or poison peddlers.”
The former federal prosecutor and Republican U.S. senator from Alabama also went away from his prepared remarks to defend his get-tough-on-crime agenda even as the calls for criminal-justice reforms from Sussman and other advocates continue to spread.
“Clinging to failed policies of the past does a terrible disservice to communities,” Sussman said Wednesday. “It flies in the face of proven solutions, and it’s the furthest thing from being smart about crime.”
In his speech in Charlotte, Sessions alluded to critics who would dismiss the arrests and prosecutions of violent criminals as “hopeless and worthless.”
“That is totally false,” he told his law enforcement audience. “You can make a difference.”