Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Karol [Mason], for those kind words and for all that you and your team at the Office of Justice Programs do to support our criminal justice professionals and to keep our cities safe.
I’m delighted to be here in Detroit with Karol, Senator [Gary] Peters, Mayor [Mike] Duggan, Chief [James] Craig and my good friend, Barbara McQuade – as well as several other outstanding U.S. Attorneys; Chris Thyer, Paul Fishman, Eileen Decker and Brian Stretch. It’s great to see all of you.
Let me also thank our terrific colleagues from the FBI, DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) and the U.S. Marshals Service, including David Harlow, the Marshals’ Acting Director. They are all critical members of the Violence Reduction Network (VRN) and I’m glad to have them with us. I also want to recognize the leadership and staff from our Office of Justice Programs, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) and Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) who are spearheading this effort. Thank you all for your hard work getting this network up and running and for your expert guidance.
And I want especially to thank our partners from communities around the country—the mayors, sheriffs, police chiefs, state and county prosecutors and other critical partners—who have joined us here today. I applaud your commitment to the safety of your cities and I’m grateful to each of you for being a part of this important and innovative collaboration.
Everyone in this room is committed to doing everything we can to build safe communities. For this country to grow and thrive, Americans must feel safe in their communities. Parents should be able to drop off their kids at school without worrying about whether the metal detectors are working. Local residents should be able to walk down to the corner store without fear of a stray bullet and homeowners should be able to sit on their front porch without fear of gang violence.
And, fortunately, that’s the case in most places. We are lucky to live in an extraordinarily safe society. Many Americans go their whole lives without being touched by violent crime. In many communities, violence is an aberration, not the norm. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is the exceptional work of our country’s law enforcement officers. Whether they’re local beat cops or experienced federal agents, these officers protect our neighborhoods and stop violence before it happens. These men and women perform their work under tough conditions and with limited resources and they do it with professionalism and great bravery.
It’s also true that many communities are far safer now than they were two or three decades ago. We have witnessed a remarkable drop in crime since the 1980’s – both violent crime and crime overall. Entire cities have been transformed, unlocking tremendous potential and releasing a wave of prosperity.
But despite these successes, we know it’s not true everywhere. There are still neighborhoods – far too many neighborhoods—where bloodshed has become a fact of life. This violence often begins with dangerous criminals, but it quickly consumes whole communities, pulling innocent bystanders into the crossfire. And even though crime is trending downward in most places, we are seeing pockets of rising violence in various locations across the country.
We don’t always know why violence descends on one place but not another. But we know that many of the neighborhoods hardest hit by violence are also grappling with other social ills, like poverty, unemployment and widespread lack of opportunity. In these communities, too many young kids have a parent behind bars and too many teenagers wind up with a rap sheet rather than a diploma. In these communities, it’s too easy to get a gun and too difficult to get a job. A vicious cycle of poverty and incarceration breeds resentment and hopelessness. Fairly or not, it’s easy for residents to lose confidence in the public institutions we represent. There is no easy solution for these problems. But it is a challenge that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is tackling head on.
Just as there is no single cause for violence, there is also no single answer. We know that we can’t arrest our way to safer communities and we know that we can’t address violent crime without addressing the social conditions that allow it to take root. At the Justice Department, we are taking a three-pronged approach to reducing violence—a strategy that incorporates prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation. We must stop crime before it happens. When crime does happen, we must swiftly identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. And once those perpetrators have served their time, we must equip them with the tools they need to reenter as productive members of society. Each prong supports the other.
The Justice Department is uniquely well-suited to take advantage of all three approaches. Our law enforcement agencies investigate crimes. Our Assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSAs) and Trial Attorneys prosecute those crimes. The Bureau of Prisons provides rehabilitative services. And then there’s the Office of Justice Programs, which offers support throughout the process, by funding research, developing best practices and assisting states and local agencies in developing similar programs.
Part of the reason why the Violence Reduction Network is so promising is because it takes a similarly holistic approach. We use every tool in DOJ’s toolbox to help communities help themselves. We work with VRN cities to figure out what resources would best serve their crime-fighting efforts, whether it’s the operational expertise of agents at FBI, DEA, ATF or the Marshals Service, or the training and technical assistance of the COPS Office or the Office of Violence Against Women. And we deploy these resources in a targeted, strategic, data-driven way to get the most bang for our buck.
It was this time last year when former Attorney General Eric Holder announced the launch of VRN. Five communities were selected for this maiden voyage: Detroit; Chicago; Camden, New Jersey; Wilmington, Delaware; and the neighboring towns of Oakland and Richmond, California. And while we’re still early in this process, we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far. While we have not accomplished everything we set out to do, we are creating a crucial foundation that will help these communities for years to come. Consider Wilmington. The city has struggled with a stubbornly high murder rate for years. Wilmington’s police force did the best it could investigating all these homicides, but it was easy to get overwhelmed, especially given their limited resources. At one point, the police department had a clearance rate of about ten percent—which meant that they were only solving one out of every 10 murders. That, in turn, meant that a lot of dangerous criminals remained out on the street, thumbing their nose at the system.
To tackle the problem, Wilmington created a new homicide investigation unit. Through the VRN network, Wilmington had access to a range of resources to back this effort, including training and other support from federal and state law enforcement agencies. Within a year, the homicide clearance rate has tripled. Each person they arrest is one less person causing trouble on the street. And just a few weeks ago, city and state officials announced the indictment of 13 gang members and 91 charges, including several murders. That’s real progress – and it sends a clear message to everyone else in Wilmington that violent crime will not be tolerated.
Or consider Camden. For years, the city has been plagued by gun violence. As many of you know, shootings are notoriously difficult to investigate, especially when eyewitnesses refuse to come forward. Oftentimes, the best evidence comes from shell casings, which are helpful not only to identify the gun used in the crime, but also to link the incident to other shootings involving the same weapon. The best way to analyze these shell casings is by using a technology called the National Integrated Ballistic Information network, or NIBIN. But a NIBIN machine can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—and while Camden certainly had a need for one, they didn’t have the funds. That meant police had to send their shell casings to other law enforcement agencies elsewhere in the state to do the analysis, which slowed down their investigations.
Through VRN, the federal government helped Camden purchase a NIBIN machine of its own. Now, Camden police can scan shell casings within hours, allowing them to move quickly on investigative leads. Even in the short time that the program is up and running, Camden officers have already identified a number of matches, helping them solve cases that would’ve taken longer in the past. These are two of many examples of how VRN is matching resources to the needs of the local community – not just in Wilmington and Camden, but also in Detroit, Chicago, Oakland and Richmond. We can expect additional progress in the months and years ahead.
And to that end, I’m pleased to announce today that we are expanding VRN to an additional five cities. After traveling to a number of different locations and meeting with local officials across the country, we have selected Flint, Michigan; Compton, California; Little Rock, Arkansas; West Memphis, Arkansas; and Newark, New Jersey. Like the five original sites, all five of these cities experience violent crime at a rate above the national average. But more importantly, all five of these new cities have demonstrated a commitment to tackling the problem and a readiness to partner with DOJ to develop new and innovative strategies. Sheriff [Jim] McDonnell, Chief [James] Tolbert, Chief [Kenton] Buckner, Director [Eugene] Venable and Chief [Donald] Oakes—on behalf of everyone in the Department of Justice, we thank you for leadership and dedication and we welcome you to the VRN network.
To be clear, the Department of Justice is not limiting its efforts to reduce violent crime to the 10 VRN sites; we are actively working with our state and local law enforcement partners in communities across the country on this issue. In July, at the request of Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch, U.S. Attorneys from over a dozen districts met with our state and local law enforcement partners to discuss the possible causes of violent crime in their respective communities and to develop and implement possible solutions.
And next month, the Attorney General will host a summit with federal, state and local government and law-enforcement leaders from across the country to discuss violence reduction strategies. Some of these leaders are from communities where there has been a recent uptick in violent crime, while others are from cities where violent crime has decreased. We want to explore what measures are working in certain communities and discuss the ways in which the department and local law enforcement can work together to tackle this problem.
Now, we all recognize that reducing violent crime takes more than dedicated leaders and bright ideas—it takes resources. And so the Department of Justice will continue to provide the tools and funds that cities, including our VRN partner sites, need to combat violent crime.
As the federal grant-making season draws to a close, I’m pleased that this year, we are awarding substantial funding to support a range of anti-violence activities, including at current VRN sites.
We are expanding the Smart Policing Initiative, which analyzes crime data in select towns, to include Chicago and several other communities. We are directing $17.7 million through our COPS Program to support various violence prevention programs, including our anti-gang initiative. We are providing a grant to Chicago to enhance its human trafficking task force and a grant to Camden to expand its work with the national forum on youth violence prevention. We are issuing grants to eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits in a number of cities, including in Detroit and Wilmington. And through the Office of Violence Against Women, we are awarding $26 million to 44 communities, including three VRN sites, to encourage enforcement of sexual assault and domestic violence offenses. Taken together, these various projects reflect our continued commitment to support communities across the country as they tackle violence in all its forms.
But make no mistake: we have our work cut out for us. Even with everything we’ve announced today, there is much to be done to make our country safer and more secure—not just in the VRN cities, but in every community across the country. The challenges are substantial. The answers are not always obvious. But looking around this room, I am confident that we will succeed. Our success may not be immediate and at times it may be halting. But as long as we remain focused on our goals and stay true to our mission, we will overcome whatever obstacles we inevitably encounter.
Our greatest asset is our ability to work together. By bringing together the very best of federal, state and local actors, we can develop solutions that no one entity could produce on its own. These partnerships will be crucial in the months and years ahead. I hope you use the rest of your time at this summit to cultivate those relationships—to listen to each other, to learn from each other—so that we can all improve the work that we do back home. I want to thank all of you for your dedication and commitment to ensuring the safety of our fellow citizens and wish you luck in the task before us. I am excited about everything we can accomplish together.