Garland promises federal help as big city violence rises

U.S.

(NewsNation Now) — The federal government is pledging to work with local law enforcement in America’s big cities to curb the rise in gun violence.

People scrambled for cover on a trendy street in Washington, D.C. near the White House as gunshots rang out Thursday night. It came less than a week after a Washington Nationals baseball game was cut short because of a shooting outside the stadium.

“The one thing I know about this city is if you don’t hold people accountable for the things they do, people will continue to engage in bad behavior,” Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee said. “We’re not holding people accountable.”

Major cities across the country have seen a significant rise in gun violence and murder rates. Chicago is now the murder capitol of the nation with more than 800 in the last year.

Attorney General Merrick Garland Thursday announced five “strike forces” in major cities. The federal government will partner with local law enforcement to curb the flow of illegal guns.

“I’m not here from Washington to tell you what to do, I’m here from Washington to find out what we can do to help you,” Garland said.

He said he felt the problem “particularly” in his hometown of Chicago.

“We all know that our job is to go after those who pull the trigger,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said. “But our job is also to go after the sources of those guns.”

Besides prioritizing gun crimes, the strike forces will embrace intelligence sharing and prosecutions across jurisdictions, Justice Department officials said. Authorities have also embedded federal agents in homicide units of police departments across the U.S., have been deploying additional crime analysts and are conducting fugitive sweeps to arrest people who have outstanding state and federal warrants for violent crimes.

At least in Chicago, there is skepticism and worry. The Rev. Marvin Hunter has held multiple news conferences in recent weeks objecting to the strike forces — which many residents believe will flood their neighborhoods with more police — or any solution that relies on police to curb the violence.

He and other residents of the predominantly Black and Latino west side of Chicago said they’re afraid having police focus more on their neighborhoods will lead to “attacks” on Black and brown men and women. Hunter is the great-uncle of Laquan McDonald, who died after he was shot 16 times by a Chicago police officer. Corniki Bornds, whose only child was killed in 2017, said a better solution to more policing is to spend more money on education.

“There was a police officer sitting on the corner when my son was shot,” Bornds said. “I don’t see the benefit of it. But if you get in front of it and try to keep bad guys from wanting to kill each other, I think that’s a better place to send resources than to the police. Because the police be there and it doesn’t mean anything.”

Violent crimes, particularly homicides and shootings, are up in many cities around the country, and the Biden administration has sought to aid communities hamstrung by violence. But the initiative begun this week differs from other recent federal efforts to address violence, because it is not sending agents or prosecutors into cities with crime spikes. Justice officials say the strike forces are targeted prosecutions meant to be a longer-term effort to combat gun trafficking.

There is no federal gun trafficking law, so federal agents often must rely on other statutes — like a law against lying on a firearms purchase form — to prosecute gun trafficking cases or stop straw purchasers, people who buy weapons legally to then provide them to others who can’t legally have them.

Officials hope the new plan will mean federal prosecutors in some of the supply cities will be more likely to bring charges in those cases.

But if the effort sounds familiar, it is. In 2017, Chicago police, federal agents and prosecutors launched a similar initiative — the Chicago Crime Gun Strike Force — to try to stem the flow of illegal firearms into the city and curb rampant gun violence.

The Justice Department said that strike force was formed in response to a surge in firearm violence and its work is continuing, but it has been focused locally in Chicago on reducing violence and not on gun trafficking from other jurisdictions. That’s been the case with similar gun task forces, too, including in New York.

Police statistics released this month showed that fewer killings were reported over the first six months of 2021 in Chicago compared with the same period last year, but the number of shootings and people shot increased.

While crime is rising in many U.S. cities, violent crime overall remains lower than it was a decade ago or even five years ago.

Experts say this year’s spike in crime defies easy explanation and point to a number of potential causes, including the coronavirus pandemic, worries about the economy and large gatherings after months of stay-at-home orders.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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