Op-Ed: Anti-Violence Awareness

U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, Western District of LouisianaLooking down from my office window at the historical, cultural and architectural gem that is the City of New Orleans, while contemplating the gross anomaly that is our constant struggle with the ravages of seemingly endemic violent crime, manifested by almost daily homicides, I cannot resist fixing on the sheer longevity and magnitude of this heartbreaking, persistent and tragic national problem. It is more than a little ironic to me that just a few blocks from here on a hot Friday in May 1898, my great grandfather, a New Orleans Police Officer, was shot to death while attempting to apprehend a wanted subject. Indeed, I think it was altogether fitting that last year’s 2010 Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) National Conference was held in the heart of New Orleans, a city whose daily bare-knuckled struggle for survival is played out as poignantly as any in this great country, and perhaps the civilized world. Significantly, our protracted struggles against the scourge of violent crime, senseless murder, the street-level drug trade, and the poverty, decay, corruption, failed education, and hopelessness that fuel it are painfully emblematic of similar public safety crises and human tragedy in communities throughout the nation, from cities to small towns, to tribal lands.

As we in New Orleans continue to grapple with some of the highest per capita homicide rates in the United States, we find ourselves at the tip of the spear of the bold enforcement, prevention, and re-entry strategy which Attorney General Eric Holder presented as the new cornerstones of PSN and this Administration’s invigorated 21st Century anti-violence strategy. That very strategy calls for both short and long-term solutions for what has for too long been a debilitating crime problem in this city and throughout the United States. Indeed, that strategy addresses root causes of violent crime in our communities.

Since its inception in 2001 – a full decade ago – PSN has been a top priority of the United States Department of Justice. The United States Attorneys, together with our federal, state and local partners, have worked together to share resources, expertise, intelligence, information, training and strategies to combat violent firearms-related crime which plagues our citizens, and especially our most vulnerable residents in and around public and low-income housing. Significant achievements have been accomplished as well, in terms of the identification, investigation, apprehension, prosecution and imprisonment of dangerous gun-wielding street predators in our cities, rural communities, and tribal lands. But while the past can in some measure be prologue, it is still the past, and our strategies and solutions must change to meet the ever-increasing complexity and persistent severity of this violent phenomenon .

As Attorney General Holder noted in New Orleans, we have reached an appropriate point for updating our goals, for modernizing and refocusing our strategies, and for implementing the most advanced thinking available on the most effective and economically viable ways to reduce violent crime and build safer communities. With PSN as the ultimate evolutionary product of 20th Century anti-violent crime thinking, the Attorney General’s new broader, more robust, updated strategy is necessary for 21st Century results.

The good news is that across our country, violent crime is down. Last year, and again this year, violent crime has decreased by nearly 6%, demonstrating that the federal government’s and the Department’s reliance on PSN continues to impact positively on communities across the country. As the Attorney General recognized, it is undisputed proof that real partnerships, with attendant targeted support of prosecutors, as well as police, investigators, training curricula, juvenile crime prevention initiatives, community outreach and other strategies, achieve results. Success stories resulting in substantial gun crime reduction which have become models for the rest of us continue in Richmond, Boston, Chicago, and High Point, North Carolina, to name just a few. Our strategic approach to crime fighting, through bold and aggressive implementation of our partnership strategy, intelligence and information sharing, joint investigations and prosecutions, and truly multi-agency, federal–state–local task forces, have resulted in a marked national increase in federal firearms prosecutions this year. In fact, in FY 2010, there were more federal firearms prosecutions than in any year since 2006.

But despite national violent crime rates dipping, the tragedies experienced by affected citizens and devastated families together with the daunting and persistent challenges confronting law enforcement, educators, local governments and communities resulting from continued violence and senseless losses of promising young lives, continues. The ugly phenomenon of young people, even in rural and suburban counties, engaging in gang violence has grown, and now manifests itself in all fifty states. Despite the downward trend in homicides overall, firearm-related homicides have increased steadily since 2002. And last year saw a tragic and alarming increase in the deaths of law enforcement officers in the line of duty.

Calling this horrific trend “appalling and unacceptable,” Attorney General Holder recently affirmed the war on violent, firearms-related crime as the Department’s top domestic enforcement priority, and second only to national security, terrorism prevention, counter-terrorism and counter espionage: “One of the key ways we will strengthen violent crime prevention is by increasing our support for the law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line each day to keep our communities safe...and it is why we will continue making investments to provide life-saving equipment, training, and information-sharing capabilities to our courageous men and women in the field.”

Building on his recognition last summer in New Orleans that we must update the Department’s violent crime strategy, the Attorney General also acknowledged that the development and execution of this new, bold, broad-based strategy is the responsibility of the outstanding network of United States Attorneys, in leadership roles in their respective districts. Taking an intelligent, practical, holistic approach to fighting crime, and recognizing that solutions must be as diverse and multi-faceted as the complex problems they confront, Attorney General Holder continues to focus increasingly on three key areas initially recognized by Western District of Virginia United States Attorney Tim Heaphy and the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee members: enforcement, prevention, and re-entry.
Coupled with the demonstrated partnership strategies of PSN, the Administration’s new, bolder and broader violent crime strategy is designed to move the Department’s efforts forward at a faster pace. Moving beyond enforcement as a primary solution, this strategy, relying on the “three-legged stool concept,” is reflective of the Attorney General’s call to United States Attorneys and our federal partners to move beyond our traditional parameters:

“We will make certain that this Department is both tough and smart on crime, and that our decisions are economically sound. This means working closely with state, local and tribal partners. It also means broadening our support for effective crime prevention, intervention, enforcement, and re-entry strategies...Our work must expand beyond arrests and prosecutions. Although PSN has helped to secure many important convictions, it has also shown that we can’s simply arrest our way out of the problem of violent crime.”

Recognizing that incarceration of dangerous offenders is necessary for public safety, the Attorney General and the Department acknowledge that it is only partly responsible for declining crime rates, and is not a sole, economically-sustainable solution.

Additionally, recognizing that in these times of economic challenges and confronted with austerity measures, we must be fiscally responsible as we move forward. While forging better, more aggressive, targeted, and efficient anti-crime strategies, we must achieve our critical goals with fewer resources.
Stated simply, we have to do more with less. And we will.

While available PSN formula grant funds have been reduced in Fiscal Year 2011, the Department will look to intelligent, robust, innovative, and result-driving strategies to get these funds into the field, including partnerships, strategic planning and research integration, training, outreach, and accountability. Moreover, PSN will be transitioning to a competitive grant program in Fiscal Year 2012 if available funds are appropriated.

The recent Attorney General-directed Sentencing and Corrections Working Group is taking a fresh look at federal sentencing practices with the goal of attempting to determine how to significantly reduce recidivism by preparing returning federal prisoners to transition back into their communities as productive members of society. This, coupled with the newly-established Interagency Working Group designed to focus exclusively on prisoner reentry issues, will address a broad spectrum of challenges from housing and job training to important policy issues.

Consistent with the Attorney General’s and the Department’s holistic violent crime solutions, these same United States Attorneys and their staffs of federal prosecutors and support personnel will step out of our traditional roles to identify real problems in neighborhoods, stepping far beyond our traditional roles as case processors.

And our partners will grow from FBI, DEA, ATF, and the U.S. Marshals to include citizens from all walks, including teachers, principals, clergy, community leaders, and – perhaps most importantly – parents.

On a personal level, what perhaps excites and encourages me most is the Attorney General’s recognition that we as United States Attorneys have the perspectives, the legal, moral and convening authority, the leverage – and ultimately the ability – to roll up our sleeves and get into the streets with the citizens we serve, and make a real difference which will save lives. At the end of the day, this is why we take these jobs and go to work at the beginning of each day – to make a difference.
And my optimism is fueled immeasurably by the indefatigable energy, commitment, dedication, intelligence, and vision of my fellow United States Attorneys with whom I have been privileged to serve. They, along with incomparable men and women of the Department of Justice, led by our Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General, have made that optimism infectious.

As our Attorney General concluded:

“As we take these steps and work to implement the solutions we need, there is – I believe – good cause for optimism. In fact, being with all of you today, in this great city, fills me with a sense of hope and excitement – excitement from the success you’ve achieved through Project Safe Neighborhoods and hope for continued progress toward the goal we all share: safe, vibrant and productive communities.”