PREPARED REMARKS OF ATTORNEY GENERAL ALBERTO R. GONZALES AT THE
NATIONAL PRESS CLUB ON "SAFER NEIGHBORHOODS: A PLAN FOR PARTNERSHIP"
Thank you and Good morning.
Only the victims of violent crime and their families can really know and express the depth of the damage that is done by its perpetrators. Two nights ago, my wife Rebecca and I attended the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Candlelight Vigil just a few blocks from here, and we were reminded of this fact by the families of fallen police officers. I think its particularly important that we talk about the problem of violent crime during a week when those officers, those patriots who served so bravely to protect our neighborhoods, are honored.
For those who have never attended this annual event, the audience includes thousands of law enforcement officers from around the nation as well as the surviving families and friends of fallen officers. By tradition, those families who have lost a loved one during the most recent year sit in the rows closest to the stage. From my vantage point I could see the emotions on some of the faces as the names of the fallen officers were read out loud.
After the program, Becky and I went down among the audience to offer condolences to some of the survivors. We were particularly moved by one family a mother, Tamara Sutphin, and her young twin daughters, Rachael and Emily. Last August, Virginia law enforcement officer Eric Sutphin was shot and killed while participating in a manhunt for an escaped prisoner. Sunday night during the ceremony the little girls cried for their daddy and their mother appeared numb with grief. Our words of comfort seemed so inadequate for their loss.
Their story is just one of many thousands of examples of the senseless violent crime that occurred last year in this country.
Like many Americans, I grew up in a neighborhood that had little besides hopes and dreams two things that I consider to be the foundation for realizing the promises of this great nation.
But it is hard to hope, it is hard to pursue your dreams, if you live in fear and grow up in a neighborhood that is weighed down by gangs and violent crime.
In most neighborhoods, the American Dream is utterly reachable. A healthy economy and overall low crime rates mean that most American children are growing up safely in the best environment that freedom on this earth has to offer.
However, recent Justice Department data, reflecting the crime rate in 2005, showed slight increases in the rate of violent crimes when compared to 2004. Preliminary numbers for 2006 also predict a small increase. It is important to note that 2005 had the second-lowest crime rate on record, surpassed only by 2004.
In general, the current data do not reveal nationwide trends in my judgment. Rather, they show increases locally in a number of communities. Each community is facing different circumstances and in some places, violent crime continues to decrease.
But that doesnt change how the families who live in those more-violent areas feel, and the daily challenges they must face.
In those neighborhoods, mothers fear for their children.
In those communities, gang members fight for domination.
And on those streets, sometimes even the innocent bystanders to neighborhood violence lose their lives.
Government at every level is aware of the problem, and is dedicated to addressing it.
But we also know that community-specific problems cannot successfully be tackled nationally or unilaterally because crime issues vary from city to city, and even between among neighborhoods in a single city. No one answer, one approach, one government agency can fix the problem in all of these unique circumstances.
To best address the varied crime challenges faced by communities around the nation, the way forward is at once simple and difficult, and it consists of this:
Local law enforcement working with community leaders to develop solutions that best suit their needs.
At the Department of Justice, we want to partner with these communities and help in those efforts.
Although the federal government does not bear the primary burden in fighting local crime, we do have some specialized expertise and resources that can assist local law-enforcement officials who do.
We can offer the extra weight of federal prosecution when appropriate, and we possess the means to collect and disseminate best practices and training.
In that sense, the steps that I will tell you about today are not new.
The investigators and prosecutors of the Department have always been fighting violent crime in America.
The FBIs Safe Streets Task Forces, for example, focus on dismantling violent organized gangs that wreak havoc in cities and towns across the country as well as investigating violent criminals involved in federal robberies, carjackings, murders and kidnappings.
The ATFs investigative priorities focus on armed violent offenders and career criminals, violent gangs, and domestic and international arms traffickers. The Violent Crime Impact Teams they lead focus on hot spots of violent activity and work to ensure that violent criminals are arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated so that they can no longer terrorize the communities where they operate.
The DEA enforces federal drug laws, including production, sales and trafficking, and their enforcement efforts have brought down significant narcotics traffickers and their organizations. DEA is also focused on working with local and state authorities to hit drug trafficking organizations where it hurts them the most--their pocket books-- and has been responsible for seizing almost $990 million in cash and assets during the first half of this fiscal year.
And the U.S. Marshals Service has achieved great success with their operation FALCON initiative, large-scale fugitive sweeps that just last month in Baltimore netted 195 offenders for crimes ranging from murder and robbery to sex crimes and narcotics offenses.
Each of these components have also always worked with their state and local counterparts to prosecute violent crime, drug and gun violations. In fact, they work together better today than ever before, in part thanks to the emphasis on collaboration in law enforcement, post-September 11th, 2001.
At the Department, we understand the importance of providing resources to ensure that our state and local counterparts can join us in these collaborations. Thats why the Departments 2008 budget request includes $200 million to support locally-led multi-jurisdictional task forces and Ill get back to that later.
In short, the Department continues to be part of a strong, national network of law enforcement programs that fight crime, and prevention programs that strive to keep them from happening in the first place.
We are mindful that Department investigators and prosecutors do not out-rank or out-number their local and state counterparts. So, out of respect for the role of local and state law enforcement, we will instead seek to provide support and fill in the gaps, helping to multiply their resources.
Before I share our new efforts with you, Id like to back up just a little bit to tell you about how the Initiative for Safer Communities began.
The Initiative for Safer Communities: Background and What We Learned
Last winter, I directed that Department of Justice officials visit 18 metropolitan areas scattered across the country to talk with state and local law enforcement and others in the community.
Many of the jurisdictions we visited had experienced increases in homicide or robbery rates, while others had experienced decreases.
Our teams met with police chiefs and officers who are out working on the streets, sheriffs, corrections officials, district attorneys and community organizations working to prevent crime.
What we learned is that every community faces unique challenges and problems. What may be the top concern for the police chief in Columbus, Ohio may not be as significant an issue for the police chief in Hartford, Connecticut.
Each citys solutions must therefore be tailored to its particular situation, and in many jurisdictions we visited, local law enforcement is already employing creative solutions tailored to their citys particular needs.
Despite the very local nature of the crime problem, however, a few themes emerged from the Safer Communities visits. None of these was true in every city we visited, but these topics came up in one way or another in many of those places.
The first theme was the prevalence of violence committed by loosely organized street crews or local gangs. These are not gangs as we might traditionally think of them, with a structured hierarchy imposing discipline and ordering acts of violence. Rather, in many cases, the biggest concern for law enforcement is loosely organized local gangs or street crews who:
That is not to say that large-scale, national gangs are not a concern. They are. But the number of observed street gangs, and the increasing violence they perpetrate, is a serious issue for local law enforcement.
Second, we heard that the prevalence of guns in the hands of criminals is a problem in many jurisdictions. Crimes committed with guns particularly those committed by juveniles are a concern to local law enforcement. And criminals who arm themselves with guns present a significant threat not only to the community, but also to the brave men and women of law enforcement across this country who seek to bring those armed offenders to justice.
Prosecution for crimes committed with guns is a necessary part of a comprehensive violent crime reduction program. And it was encouraging to hear feedback that federal prosecutions for the misuse of firearms through partnerships developed by our Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative are providing a significant deterrent. In the six years since PSNs inception, the Department has prosecuted twice as many crimes involving guns as we prosecuted in the six years prior to PSN. And statistics from last year tell us that over 90 percent of those offenders serve time in prison, where they are off the street and cannot continue their violent, criminal ways.
Prosecuting the offender after a crime is committed is only part of the equation. We must also focus on how those criminals get those guns in the first place.
Firearms are obtained by criminals in a variety of ways. For example, one way is through a "straw purchase" where someone else purchases the gun and then transfers it to a criminal the actual purchaser. These transactions are illegal. Other criminals get their guns through burglarizing homes or firearms dealers. And in other cases, individuals who initially obtained their weapon legally trade it in exchange for drugs.
The Department is looking at those issues, we believe we can offer help, and Ill get to that momentarily.
The third message we heard time and time again from police chiefs was a concern about the level of violence among their cities youth.
Many law enforcement officials reported that offenders appear to be younger and younger and their crimes are becoming more and more violent in nature.
There are deeply troubling indications that young offenders often lack respect for human life and fail to appreciate the consequences of their actions.
We also heard about the ineffectiveness of some states juvenile justice laws at deterring youth crime. In some cases, the existing juvenile justice systems provide little, if any, real penalty for crime, even for repeat violent offenders.
Many police chiefs attributed the problem of violence among youth to a lack of positive influence in the lives of young people, including a lack of parental involvement and the negative influence of popular culture which glamorizes violence and gang membership.
Indeed, we believe that prevention is the real solution to crime among our youngest citizens. By law, the federal government has only a very limited role in prosecuting juvenile offenders the vast majority of such crimes are prosecuted by the states. These are not issues that the Department can fix through heightened enforcement or by using federal tools. Instead we must focus on helping out communities that have plans and structures in place to work on prevention and offer positive alternatives to crime, violence and gang membership.
This approach is also exemplified by First Lady Laura Bushs initiative, Helping Americas Youth, which emphasizes family, school and community efforts with the support of federal funding.
The federal government can and should partner in these efforts, but federal resources will always pale in comparison to the effectiveness of early intervention and attention by parents, mentors, teachers, and clergy in childrens lives. No amount of resources or police officers can substitute for these things.
Although many of these problems can only be truly solved through attention by state legislatures, city councils, state and local law enforcement agencies and the leadership of local officials, the Department of Justice has an important role to play in helping state and local governments to fight crime in their communities. There is much we already do.
For example, through Project Safe Neighborhoods, every federal judicial district has developed a case screening system to ensure that significant firearms criminals are prosecuted in the jurisdiction that can offer the most appropriate sentence. Often, it is the federal system, with its strong penalties, that serves as the right forum.
In addition to stiff sentences that are not available in some state systems, the federal system also often provides pre-trial detention for offenders who are a danger to the community and, once, incarcerated, provides for appropriate sentences without parole.
Many local law enforcement agencies and communities reported dissatisfaction with a lack of pretrial detention or adequate bonds in the state system or that offenders are released without serving a significant portion of their sentence. For these reasons, among others, our United States Attorneys Offices can have a significant impact on street-level crime by prosecuting the worst of the worst violent offenders on federal conspiracy, drug or gun charges.
These federal prosecutions can be highly effective against members of the loosely organized gangs I mentioned earlier. That is why in February of last year, I expanded the Project Safe Neighborhoods program to include new and enhanced anti-gang efforts. The expansion of the successful PSN program added the Departments existing robust anti-gang enforcement and prevention commitment.
The Department over the last six years has also taken illegal firearms trafficking seriously, and has made significant headway in our fight against the illegal diversion of guns.
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 likely of little solace to the good people living in communities that are still experiencing increases in violent crime.
I am committed to doing more to make our neighborhoods safer for this countrys citizens. Today I am pleased to announce a number of new programs and efforts to address the issues identified by our state and local counterparts through the Initiative for Safer Communities.
These new efforts can be broken down into three categories:
More specifically, in the area of new federal law enforcement efforts:
In addition to these enforcement efforts, we will also be providing additional resources and training to support our state and local partners, including:
Id like to wrap up with a call to Congress.
The Departments FY 2008 budget request includes $200 million for Violent Crime Reduction Partnership grants and over $13 million for other violent-crime-related enhancements that will support our Project Safe Neighborhoods enforcement efforts, increase our ability to target firearms traffickers, and increase the prosecution of gangs and violent criminals. I hope Congress approves that request.
We also look forward to working with Congress on developing a new crime bill that will address some of the issues I've discussed today by amending and strengthening existing laws to ensure that federal law enforcement agencies are able to successfully investigate and prosecute many types of violent crime.
In conclusion, I want to say that the Department of Justice is a proud player in the partnership to fight violent crime because we know how fear and violence can be the most unfair roadblock on the path of a childs dreams.
And in the most free nation on earth, a place where opportunities can be realized like no where else, we must not allow violent criminals to stand in the way of those dreams.
With the resources and tools that Ive outlined here today, the Department of Justice will stand side-by-side with local and state law enforcement who are fighting for the safety of our neighborhoods every day.
And well also be standing in support of the partners who I believe may be 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 who are facing their own unique challenge.