On Friday I had the opportunity to visit the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. As much as it is a commemoration of one man’s rise from humble beginnings, the museum is also a tribute to public service. I was inspired to see there, in one place, depictions of all that Lincoln did … and all of the obstacles he overcame … to afford equal opportunity to all Americans.
Lincoln understood that there is no more powerful force on earth than the dreams of men -- but that without fair opportunity, hopes and dreams may never be realized. And just the same, we know today that if people live in fear for their safety, they will not be able to reach their dreams.
Our charge, like Lincoln’s, is to create opportunity -- equal opportunity -- by keeping people safe, so they can nourish their hopes, and fulfill their dreams.
We are at a moment in our Nation's history in which we enjoy great blessings, but also face great challenges. In most neighborhoods, our citizens’ dreams are completely reachable. A healthy economy and historically low crime rates mean that most American children are growing up safely in the best environment that freedom has to offer.
But some of you have come here from cities where crime remains a stubborn and persistent problem. You see every day the effects of drugs, and gangs, and violence. You walk every day down streets where innocent children are at risk, and where fear keeps their dreams out of reach.
There is no single answer or approach to address all of the unique challenges caused by crime. The details vary from city to city, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood.
That is why local law-enforcement officials bear the primary burden in fighting local crime. But the federal government has specialized expertise and resources that can help. We have the means to collect and disseminate best practices and training. And we can offer the extra weight of federal prosecution when appropriate.
For example, working with state and local authorities outside of Washington, D.C. -- including Chief Melvin High of Prince George's County, Maryland – we were able to bring federal racketeering charges against several members of the violent gang MS-13. We established at trial that Oscar Velasquez and others conspired to operate a criminal enterprise through a pattern of activity including assault, kidnapping, robbery, and seven murders in Maryland and Virginia. And last week Velasquez was sentenced to 37 years in prison.
This use of federal RICO laws is an innovative approach to fighting criminals with tough penalties that may be unavailable in the state system. We're using some of the same tools we used to put Mafia leaders behind bars, because we recognize that gangs like MS-13 pose a similar threat.
To try to identify more ways we can help, I sent DOJ officials to 18 cities across the country last fall to talk with law enforcement leaders and others in the community – including NOBLE members. We learned that every community faces unique challenges and problems.
What may be the top concern for the police chief in Albany, New York, may not be as big a problem for the chief in Albany, Georgia.
Despite the local nature of the crime problem, however, a few themes emerged from our visits. We heard that loosely organized street gangs are a major concern in many cities. We heard that the prevalence of guns in the hands of criminals is a common threat – not only to the community, but also to the brave men and women of law enforcement who seek to bring those armed offenders to justice. And we heard a great deal of concern about the level of violence committed by kids.
Many law enforcement officials reported that offenders appear to be younger and younger, and their crimes are becoming more and more violent. Chiefs told us they saw a lack of positive influence in the lives of young people, including a lack of parental involvement and the negative influence of popular culture that glamorizes violence and gang membership.
Now, some of these are not issues that the Department of Justice can fix through heightened enforcement or by using federal tools. In some cases we must help communities work on prevention and offer positive alternatives to crime, violence, and gang membership. But in other cases there's more the Department can do directly to help local governments fight crime in their communities.
For example, through our Project Safe Neighborhoods program, we can screen criminal cases to ensure that significant gun crimes are prosecuted in the jurisdiction that offers the most appropriate sentence. Often, the federal system, with its strong penalties, will be the right forum. The federal system also often provides pre-trial detention for offenders who are a danger to the community.
These federal prosecutions can be very effective against members of loosely-organized street gangs, and that’s why I extended Project Safe Neighborhoods last year to include gang crime as well. Since 2001 we have committed more than $1.7 billion to federal, state and local efforts to fight gun crime and gang violence under PSN. We've hired new prosecutors, provided training, done research and community outreach, and developed new tools for prevention and deterrence. In the past six years we've brought more than twice as many firearms prosecutions as were brought in the previous six years.
And we've provided grants of $2.5 million each to 10 cities to implement the Department’s Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative, focusing on prevention, enforcement and prisoner re-entry.
We are proud of our partnerships with state and local law enforcement, and our existing efforts to reduce violent crime. But I recognize that effort alone is no comfort to the good people living in communities that are still tormented by violent crime.
I know there are places in America that for too long were written off as unlivable … places where thugs and criminals owned the streets and anyone else unlucky enough to be there had to fend for themselves.
There were neighborhoods, it was said, that even the police wouldn't go into. We should never accept that. To concede even a single neighborhood is to forfeit the hopes of some poor single mother and the dreams of her children.
I want to work with you to do more to make our neighborhoods safer. Recently I announced a number of new programs and efforts to build on the best ideas we've seen around the country.
-We've been conducting integrated takedowns and fugitive sweeps in a number of cities over the past few weeks, and there will be more in the weeks ahead.
-Under our successful Violent Crime Impact Team initiative, more than 2,000 gang members, drug dealers, felons in possession of firearms and other criminals were arrested on local, state or federal charges in 2006. And we recently expanded to an additional four cities, bringing the total number of these teams to 29.
-Our Safe Streets Task Forces combine the efforts of over 800 FBI agents and 1,200 other federal, state and local officers to disrupt and dismantle violent gangs, and target serious violent criminals throughout the nation. We now have more than 180 of them across the country, including a new one in Orlando, Florida we added just last month.
The Department of Justice is proud to stand side-by-side with our law enforcement partners at all levels who are fighting for the safety of our neighborhoods every day.
And we also stand in support of the partners who I believe may be the most important of all – the ones at the community centers, the synagogues, churches and mosques, and the kitchen tables of the homes in any given neighborhood.
Somewhere in a poor urban neighborhood is a child who has the potential to do great things like President Lincoln. All he needs, all she needs, is the opportunity to grow and learn. Many of you have spent your entire career keeping our kids off drugs and out of gangs. I will be with you.
Thank you for your service. May God bless all of you in your important mission, and may He continue to richly bless the United States of America.