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Justice Dept. refocuses long-standing anti-violence program

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department is refocusing a long-standing violent crime initiative amid a string of violence and mass shootings across the U.S. that includes embedding federal agents with local homicide investigators and sweeps to arrest wanted fugitives with a significant history of violence.

In announcing the initiative on Wednesday, federal officials took strains to try to distinguish it from prior, similar operations, like Operation Legend, that became a political talking point during the end of the Trump administration.

“Today, we renew our commitment to reducing violent crime and building strong communities where all Americans are safe,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement.

It comes as a number of cities are seeing increases in violent crime — though such spikes are common in the summer months — and as the number of mass shootings in the nation continues to rise. Eight people were killed on Wednesday when an employee opened fire at a California rail yard serving Silicon Valley, before he ended his own life.

The new focus of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a program that encourages federal, state and local law enforcement officials to work together on crime-reduction strategies, will not be on the number of arrests but on how it is driving down violent crime, and officials will not tout the number of prosecutions that are being brought, senior Justice Department officials said.

But an hour before the refocusing was announced, the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland held a news conference to say it was expanding a different violent crime initiative, known as Project Exile, which focuses on gun crimes and has been criticized by criminal justice reform activists, who say it leads to mandatory minimum sentences and disproportionately targets Black men. The office also touted the number of gun cases it brought both last year and in recent weeks, seeming to directly contradict the messaging from other senior department leaders.

A senior Justice Department official said that the department was taking a “comprehensive approach” to violent crime and that “things like targeted gun enforcement have to be a part of this kind of broader plan.” The official would not discuss the matter publicly and briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

As part of the plan, U.S. attorneys across the nation are being told to align their initiatives to improve community engagement, support violence intervention programs, create plans to work with state, local and tribal law enforcement officials and then measure the reduction in violent crime.

It also requires federal prosecutors to establish an immediate plan to address spikes in violent crime that usually crop up during the summer.

“The Department recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that the needs of each jurisdiction will vary based on the nature of violent crimes and the ability of local criminal justice systems to respond,” the Justice Department said in announcing the program.

Such initiatives are routine for the department, and for decades federal agents and local law enforcement officers have worked alongside one another in task forces targeting violent crime, drug trafficking, fugitives and sex offenders.

Michael Balsamo, The Associated Press