Mounting concern over recent violent crime surges in some U.S. cities has prompted the Justice Department to call a meeting next month of more than a dozen local law enforcement officials to deal with persistent public safety threats, ranging from criminal gangs to domestic violence, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates told USA TODAY in an interview.
The Justice summit builds on an increasing federal re-engagement with local police whose forces in the past two years have been buffeted by questions over lethal force policies and flagging public trust.
Earlier this year, in the face of rising tensions between the police and the public in communities across the nation, a special White House policing task force issued a slate of recommendations aimed at restoring public confidence. The Justice Department also has opened inquiries into the operations of more than 20 police departments across the country since 2009, including earlier this year in Baltimore where days of civil unrest was sparked by the death of a local man in police custody.
Although violent crime has been in decline in much of the country for years, federal authorities are re-committing resources, some of which were directed to address anti-terror concerns in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, to battle troubling spikes in local crime.
Yates on Monday is set to identify five cities—Compton, Calif., Little Rock, Ark., West Memphis, Ark., Newark, N.J., and Flint, Mich.— which are poised to get an infusion of federal help to battle violence even as most of the country has enjoyed relative calm.
“Every community is different and every community has their own unique challenges,” Yates said. “For us to be most effective, we really need to be digging in at the local level… to fashion our response. This is not a one-size-fits-all kind of solution.”
The five cities represent the first expansion of the so-called Violence Reduction Network, launched last year by the Justice Department to address similar violent crime problems in Chicago, Detroit, Wilmington, Del., Camden, N.J., and in the Oakland-Richmond, Calif., area.
While no federal money is attached to inclusion in the network, Yates said the designation provides cities unique access to existing federal expertise in gang investigations, drug trafficking inquiries, the pursuit of violent fugitives, intelligence gathering and other strategies that may be lacking at local public safety agencies.
In some small departments, the deputy attorney general said, problems may be as fundamental as having no experience requesting federal grant money for use in hiring additional police officers or to purchase needed equipment.
Earlier this summer, while cities such as Chicago and Baltimore continued to battle worrisome rashes of violence, Attorney General Loretta Lynch directed the nation’s 93U.S. attorneys to begin gathering information about local crime trends in their jurisdictions to better measure the needs of state, county and municipal agencies.
In Chicago, homicides have been running at levels nearly 20% more than last year. And similar spikes have been recorded in Milwaukee and St. Louis.
Yates said there is “no indication” that the surges signal a possible return to the waves of violence that plagued the 1980s and early 1990s.
“It’s too early to know if this is a long-term shift or a short-term cyclical change,” Yates said. “But it doesn’t really matter from our perspective because our response is always going to be the same: that is to dig in to try to find out what the causes are.”
In Camden, Chief Scott Thomson credits federal help with contributing to a 50% reduction in shootings and homicides during the past two years.
Thomson said the federal violence reduction program has “reinvented the way cities, challenged with violent crime, work with federal law enforcement agencies.”
Camden authorities, Thomson said, specifically benefited from digital imaging training provided by the FBI, which allowed investigators to extract video from private security systems to quickly identify suspects in various local crimes.
Thomson said videos are being converted to “commercials” for broadcast on traditional and social media to solicit public assistance.
“We are now alerting the public within hours, rather than days, which has facilitated the identification and apprehension of dozens of individuals suspected of crimes ranging from child luring to murder,” he said.
Camden also was among a number of cities that benefited earlier this year from a broad U.S. Marshals Service operation, resulting in the arrest of 7,100 fugitives during a six-week sweep.
Among those arrested: 519 wanted on homicide charges and 583 for alleged sexual assault.
Yates cited the U.S. Marshals operation as the type of targeted assistance that the federal government can offer local agencies who lack resources.
The October meeting of law enforcement officials called by the Justice Department, Yates said, is another attempt to “try to find out what’s working and what is not working.”