Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Carrie [Costantin, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri], for the kind introduction. It’s also good to have with us your outstanding new attorney general in Missouri, Josh Hawley and your new secretary of state, Jay Ashcroft.
I want to welcome the many law enforcement leaders from the St. Louis area who have joined us today. Thank you for everything you and your people do to protect your communities I look forward to meeting with you.
All of us who work in law enforcement want to keep people safe. Plain and simple. That is the heart of our jobs; it is what drives us every day. For many of you and your staffs, you take the extra step of putting your lives on line with every traffic stop, search warrant, and arrest. We are all disturbed to learn that violent crime is on the rise in American cities. We are even more discouraged to learn that this is happening amid an unprecedented epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse. In some places, like here in St. Louis, these two crises are closely connected.
That is what I want to talk about with you today.
First, we should remember some context. In the past four decades, our nation has won great victories against crime. Overall, crime rates remain near historic lows. Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980. We have driven the violent crime rate down to almost half of what it was at its peak. The good people of St. Louis have seen this progress firsthand: In 2013, the violent crime rate here was less than half of what it was at its highest point 20 years before.
But today, we see warning signs that this progress is now at risk.
The latest FBI data tell us that from 2014 to 2015, the violent crime rate in the U.S. increased by more than 3 percent – the largest one-year increase since 1991. The murder rate increased 10 percent – the largest increase since 1968.
If this was just a one-year spike, we might not worry too much. But the preliminary data for the first half of 2016 confirmed these trends. The number of violent crimes was more than 5 percent higher than the same period in 2015. The number of murders was also up 5 percent.
What’s happening in St. Louis mirrors this trend. In 2015, violent crime here rose more than 8 percent, and the murder rate was the highest in two decades – almost 19 percent higher than the year before, and an astounding 67 percent higher than just three years before. And the preliminary data for 2016 show that violent crime continues to rise in St. Louis.
These numbers should trouble all of us. Behind all the data are real people whose safety and lives are at stake – like the good people whose stories I will hear later today. Each victim of this recent spike in violent crime is someone’s parent, child or friend. And every loss of a life to guns or drugs is a tragedy we must work to prevent.
My fear is that this surge in violent crime in St. Louis, and throughout America, is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend. This increase risks losing the hard-won gains that have made our country a safer and more prosperous place; gains that were made on the backs of the brave men and women in uniform.
While we can hope for the best, hope is not a strategy. When crime rates move in the wrong direction, they can move fast.
We know this, because some of us have lived it. In the early 1960s, crime rates began to rise in our country. By 1973, crime rates in almost every category had doubled over their levels just a decade before. As the ’70s went on, levels of crime and violence that we once deemed unacceptably high became the “new normal” in America.
I lived through that dark time in our history. I dealt with its consequences every day as a prosecutor.
And I can assure you: We do not want to go back to those days. We must act decisively at all levels – federal, state and local – to reverse this rise in violent crime and ensure public safety. The good news is that we did it before, and cut violent crime almost in half. If we do this right, we can stop this rise in its tracks.
Last month, President Trump gave us clear direction. He issued three executive orders directing the federal government to reduce crime and restore public safety. This is a high priority for him. This task is also a top priority of the Department of Justice, and we are excited and energized to tackle it. I’d like to talk briefly about how we are doing that.
First, we’re making sure the federal government focuses our resources and efforts on this surge in violent crime.
Last month, I announced the formation of a Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. It includes crime reduction experts from throughout our Department, including the heads of the FBI, ATF, DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The task force is evaluating everything we are doing at the federal level. It has a variety of subcommittees that are already hard at work. I have asked for their initial recommendations by July 27th, but I will continue to act on their recommendations as they become available.
Second: We need to use every lawful tool we have to get the most violent offenders off our streets.
Earlier this month, I sent a memo to all our federal prosecutors, urging them to work closely with their federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to target the most violent offenders in their districts. There are not that many people capable of murder. The more of them we put in jail, the fewer murders we will have.
It is only through collaborative efforts between federal, state and local law enforcement that we can effectively identify and remove the most dangerous criminals from the streets. The U.S. attorney’s office here has given us a great example of this type of partnership. Over the past two years, Carrie and the team have doubled the number of federal prosecutions of gun cases.
Working together, we will determine which venue – federal or state – would best be suited to remove these criminals from our communities, and ensure they are held fully accountable for their crimes.
While the job of a prosecutor is to enforce the law, we also recognize that prevention efforts and re-entry programs for offenders play a key part in an effective strategy to reduce violent crime. The department’s task force is also looking at how we can best support good local efforts on these fronts wherever possible.
Third: To turn back this rising tide of violent crime, we need to confront America’s heroin and opioid crisis – and dismantle the transnational cartels that bring drugs and violence into our neighborhoods.
Our nation is in the throes of an epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse. According to the CDC, heroin-related overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 2010. On average, about 140 Americans now die each day from a drug overdose. That means every three weeks, we lose as many American lives to overdoses as we lost in the 9/11 attacks.
Unfortunately, the people of St. Louis know this problem all too well. Last year, 256 people in this city died from an opioid overdose. That is almost double the total from the previous year – and more than the number of murders during that time.
What makes this crisis an epidemic is that it knows no zip code. Its victims are white and black and brown; they are in the city, the suburbs and the country; and they are rich, poor and everything in between.
And the victims aren’t just addicts and users. Here in St. Louis and in other American cities, transnational drug cartels are working with street gangs to traffic heroin that is both cheaper and stronger than ever. As the market for this heroin expands, these gangs fight for territory and new customers – and innocent people are caught in the crossfire.
Those people include Clara Walker, a grandmother of eight who lived here in St. Louis. A little over three years ago, just after Christmas, she was in her home when she heard gunfire. She thought it was coming from a TV show. But outside her house, a gang enforcer was shooting to protect his gang’s drug-dealing turf. Two of the bullets hit Mrs. Walker and killed her.
We know that drugs and crime go together. One factor in the fall of murder rates was a decline in drug use. To save lives and stop the new wave of violence connected with this heroin epidemic, we must fight the scourge of drugs in our country.
There are three main ways to do this: criminal enforcement, treatment programs and prevention.
We need criminal enforcement to stop the transnational cartels that smuggle drugs across our borders, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product.
Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death – especially with powerful drugs like heroin.
Let me share an example. Last month, the St. Louis newspaper ran a story on the heroin crisis here. It featured a young woman named Ashley. She has used heroin off and on for a decade – even though it has meant losing her three children to state custody. Ashley told the reporter that she wished she had never started using. She said: “I just wanted to try it.” She called that decision, quote: the “dumbest thing ever.”
If our nation was sending a stronger message never to use drugs, how different might Ashley’s life be – or the lives of so many others like her? What if someone had told them that “trying it” just once is all it takes to start down the road of addiction?
My point is that while enforcement and treatment programs are crucial, they aren’t enough. We need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people like Ashley from ever trying drugs in the first place.
Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction can result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives, and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse. It will not be easy; there is no quick cure, and this effort will take years. But we can and will do it.
Finally: The federal government alone cannot meet the challenge of violent crime and drugs – so we need to protect and support our brave men and women in state, local and tribal law enforcement. About 85 percent of all law enforcement officers in our nation are state and local. These are the men and women on the front lines.
Unfortunately, in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the crimes and unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors. Amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, morale has gone down, while the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has gone up.
This issue is especially sensitive here in the St. Louis area, after the events that took place in Ferguson nearly three years ago. Since then, Ferguson has become an emblem of the tense relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve, especially minority communities.
We all have a lot of work to do to improve this situation – both law enforcement leaders and community leaders. And we must improve it; this is critical. St. Louis and its suburbs are one community, and they are in this together.
Certainly, we must continue to address police misconduct, and the Department of Justice will do its part. But we also can’t lose sight of two things. First, the vast majority of men and women in law enforcement are good people, who have chosen to do tremendously hard and dangerous jobs because they want to protect us all. Also, it is proactive, up-close policing – when officers get out of their squad cars and interact with everyone on their beat – that builds trust, prevents violent crime and saves lives.
Unfortunately, many law enforcement leaders say this kind of policing has become more difficult. In some cities, arrests have fallen even as murder rates have surged.
This is a terrible place to be, because you and I know that tough and professional law enforcement can make a real difference. It can reduce crime and save lives. We have seen it happen in our country over the past four decades.
To turn back rising crime, we must rely heavily on all of you in state and local law enforcement to lead the way – and you must be confident in our steadfast support. This Department of Justice will use our money, research, and expertise to help you figure out what is happening and determine the best ways to fight crime. We will strengthen partnerships between federal, state and local officers. We will encourage the proactive policing that keeps our neighborhoods safe. And we will have the back of all honest and honorable law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
The recent surge in violent crime is real. The epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse is also real. We can’t wish these problems away, or hope that things will get better on their own. Instead, we must act to ensure justice and safety for all Americans.
Fortunately, we know what we need to do. We must enforce our laws and remove dangerous criminals from the street. We must fight the scourge of drug abuse. And we must support the brave men and women of law enforcement, as they work day and night to protect us.
In this great task, I am proud to call each of you partners. Thank you for having me here in St. Louis today. I look forward to talking with you all and learning from you.