Earlier this morning in Richmond, Virginia, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to a gathering of law enforcement leaders from across the country to lay out the Department of Justice’s agenda for addressing the surge in violent crime affecting the nation.
While acknowledging that crime rates remain near historic lows, Sessions correctly pointed out that over the past two years there has been an uptick in violent crime that should not be ignored.
Overall, violent crime jumped 3 percent between 2014 and 2015, the largest one-year spike since 1991. Meanwhile, the murder rate jumped a staggering 10 percent, the largest such increase since 1968.
But crime hasn’t yet receded. Sessions pointed out, “If this was just a one-year spike in violent crime, we might not worry too much. But the preliminary data for the first half of 2016 confirmed these trends.”
The number of violent crimes in the first half of last year was more than 5 percent higher than the same period in 2015. The number of murders was also up 5 percent, and aggravated assaults rose as well. Since 2014, the murder rate has gone up in 27 of our country’s 35 largest cities.
Rather than write off the recent rise in violence as a mere anomaly, Sessions correctly acknowledged that such a dramatic rise in violence throughout society must be addressed immediately lest the hard fought reductions in crime rates achieved by the law enforcement community over the past few decades be squandered.
This is a very different approach to that of the preceding administration. The Obama administration spent more effort waging a war against mass incarceration than it did addressing the rise in violence and social dysfunction plaguing many of our nation’s largest cities.
President Barack Obama spent his last day in office commuting the sentences of 330 federal prisoners, bringing his administration’s total to 1,715—far more than any other president in history.
Supporters of Obama’s actions point to the commutations as being directed almost wholly toward so-called “nonviolent” drug offenders. But, as with anything, there is often more to the story than meets the eye.
Many of those whose sentences were commuted by Obama were not merely “nonviolent” offenders. Some 78 of the 330 prisoners commuted on Obama’s last day were also convicted of firearms crimes—hardly “nonviolent.”
Sessions indicated that such a cavalier attitude toward gun violence would end.
“In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting firearms offenders at the federal level,” Sessions said. “This trend will end. This Department of Justice will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes.”
Sessions further indicated that the Department of Justice would actively collaborate with state and local law enforcement counterparts to determine the most effective way to pursue violent criminals.
“Working together, we will determine which venue—federal or state—would best take these criminals off our streets immediately, and ensure they are properly punished for their crimes.”
In concluding, Sessions also touched on the elephant in the room, understood all too well by the law enforcement community but often by very few others: the crisis in morale affecting our nation’s police officers.
Noting that police officers have been “unfairly maligned” over the past few years, Sessions acknowledged that “[t]oo many of our officers, deputies, and troopers believed the political leadership of this country abandoned them.”
The crisis in morale affecting law enforcement officers has not only had an impact on recruiting and retention efforts, which is down in major cities across the nation. It has also affected officer behavior in a way that compromises public safety.
The Pew Research Center recently found that 72 percent of officers indicated they were unwilling to stop and question suspicious people, and another 76 percent were reluctant to use force on a suspect event when appropriate.
This reduction in proactive policing is a dangerous trend that must be reversed, and Sessions noted as much when he said that more officers today are “reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the proactive, up-close police work that builds trust and prevents violent crime.”
He added that “we should encourage the proactive policing that keeps our neighborhoods safe. This Department of Justice will do just that.”
The law enforcement community—and society in general—needs to know that the Department of Justice understands the specific issues facing police officers as well as how to address the dangerous surge in violent crime. Sessions’ remarks in Richmond went a long way toward achieving that goal.