Announcing a three-pronged Department of Justice plan to reduce violent crime across the country, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said rebuilding trust between police and the community was essential to keeping Americans safe.
“Today, we renew our commitment to reducing violent crime and building strong communities where all Americans are safe,” Garland said in a press release.
“The Deputy Attorney General is issuing a comprehensive strategy to deploy our federal resources in the most effective way, disrupting the most dangerous threats and supporting the ground-level efforts of local law enforcement.”
According to senior Justice Department officials, the strategy aims to build up law enforcement legitimacy in communities across the country, invest in community-based prevention and intervention programs, employ strategic enforcement efforts to prevent more crimes, and measure progress based on how many crimes were averted, rather than on the number of arrests and prosecutions, Courthouse News reports.
“In this endeavor, we will engage our communities as critical partners,” the attorney general said. “And through our grantmaking, we will support programming at all stages—from the earliest violence interruption strategies to post-conviction reentry services.”
In related news, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said that federal overhauls of local police departments bolster the fight against violent crime, countering criticism from some officers who say the national outcry over police conduct is already sapping their morale as departments across the U.S. see rising gun violence, reports the Wall Street Journal.
No dollar figure was announced for the DOJ plan, but a senior White House official last week said the administration was seeking $5.2 billion to address The Biden Administration’s plans to address rising gun violence through support for community-oriented intervention and street outreach programs such as violence interrupters, as well as hospital-based programs that can offer residents of at-risk communities the services they need to stabilize their lives, and to stay safe.
“This is the level of funding we need to meet the scale of violence in the immediate term.” Chiraag Bains, Special Assistant to President Joe Biden on Criminal Justice, told a recent webinar.
Garland’s announcement came as a rise in homicide and other violent crime added to anxieties as the country emerged from the pandemic. In 2020, the murder rate increased by over 25 percent across the country and major U.S. cities experienced a 33 percent rise in homicides that seems to be continuing into this year, reports the Courthouse News Service.
According to a report released last week by National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCJ) while murders have declined slightly since the summer of 2020, the homicide rate still rose by 24 percent in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the same period last year.
The figures amount to a 49 percent increase over the same period in 2019.
Aggravated and gun assault rates also rose by 7 percent and 22 percent, respectively, in the same quarter, according to the study, which was conducted by criminologists Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The plan unveiled by Garland establishes a set of four fundamental principles to guide the Department’s effort.
- build trust and legitimacy between law enforcement and the community;
- invest in violence prevention and intervention programs;
- focus enforcement efforts on violent crime; and
- measure the results of the plan based on the reduction in violent crime throughout communities, rather than number of arrests.
These principles will also guide the Department’s law enforcement components, grant-making components and litigating divisions in addition to the Department’s 94 U.S. Attorneys’ General offices, the DOJ said.
“The Department’s efforts to tackle crime depend on having trust and legitimacy with the communities we serve, so law enforcement is viewed as — and can be — an ally in guarding public safety,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a memo to DOJ employees.
“It is thus critical that we treat people with dignity and respect, establish a culture of transparency and accountability, and underscore our broader commitment to procedural justice and community policing.”
The second part of the three-pronged approach is to better develop and update Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), established in 2001, by aligning their programs with the Department’s four principles.
The Department said it will help implement some of these measures at Project Safe Neighborhoods throughout the country.
Lastly, the Department hopes for each U.S. Attorneys’ Office to work with state and local communities to craft a plan to reduce the spike in violent crime. The Department has offered services through its various components to communities in order for this to happen.
The FBI and United States Marshals Service will be available to help identify and arrest violent offenders across the country. ATF will offer its services by matching ballistic evidence from crime scenes to other evidence throughout the nation.
Monaco said she will develop a Violent Crime Reduction Steering Committee that will ensure the principles and practices the Department outlined are being performed. The committee will meet regularly to make recommendations on the Department’s effort to reduce violent crime and will guide the implementation of these efforts.
“We are charged with the responsibility of seeking justice under the law,” Monaco said. “One of the most important components of that responsibility is doing all we can, consistent with our values, to reduce violent crime in our communities.”
The Justice Department last month launched federal pattern-or-practice investigations into police agencies in Minneapolis and Louisville, KY after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked national outrage and calls for reform. Justice Department officials have said they plan to open more such investigations. Gupta said previous agreements have driven down police use of force without contributing to more crime. She said unconstitutional police tactics are counterproductive because they alienate witnesses, victims and others, making it harder to solve and prevent crime.
Gupta pointed to a 2017 report by the monitor overseeing a consent decree in Seattle that showed a 60 percent drop in officers’ use of force compared with the rate when the Justice Department’s investigation began in 2011, while crime didn’t increase. Monitors of consent decrees in Cleveland and Baltimore at times showed similar results. However, police officer advocates argue that heightened federal scrutiny could undermine officer morale and discourage them from pursuing investigations that could lead to a confrontation.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, counters that few studies have examined the long-term impacts of such probes and their resulting consent decrees on crime rates. Some cities saw drops in crime years after Justice Department investigations began, he said, once officials had time to create new policies, train officers on them and put accountability measures in place.
Investigations are just one tool the Justice Department plans to use to promote changes in local policing, Gupta said, citing grants, training and other programs.
Blake Diaz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern