Good morning, everyone. I want to begin by thanking Dana [Boente] for coming down to Richmond and introducing me today. Dana is currently wearing two hats, serving as acting Deputy Attorney General while also continuing to serve as your U.S. Attorney here in the Eastern District of Virginia. I’m grateful for his outstanding service in both roles.
I also want to welcome the many federal, state and local law enforcement leaders who have joined us. Thank you for everything you and your people do. I look forward to meeting with you this morning.
All of us who work in law enforcement want to keep people safe. That is the heart of our jobs; it is what drives us every day. So we are all disturbed to learn that violent crime is on the rise in America, especially in our cities. And that is what I want to talk about with you today.
First, we should keep in mind some context. Overall, crime rates in our country remain near historic lows. Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980. The rate of violent crime has fallen by almost half from its peak.
The people of Richmond have seen this progress firsthand. Since 1995, murder and violent crime rates in Richmond have fallen by two-thirds. You have watched neighborhoods that were once in the grip of gangs and drugs transformed into places where kids can play and parents can take walks after sunset without fear.
In the past four decades, we have won great victories against crime in America. This happened under leadership from both political parties, and thanks above all to the work of prosecutors and good police using data-driven methods and professional training. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are alive today as a result.
But in the last two years, we’ve seen warning signs that this progress is now at risk.
The latest FBI data tell us that from 2014 to 2015, the violent crime rate in the U.S. increased by more than 3 percent – the largest one-year increase since 1991. The murder rate increased 10 percent – the largest increase since 1968. And all of this is taking place amid an unprecedented epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse.
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. Homicide rates in Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Memphis have returned to levels not seen in two decades. Here in Richmond, the preliminary murder total for 2016 was 44 percent higher than the year before.
These numbers should trouble all of us. Behind all the data are real people whose safety and lives are at stake – people like the good folks whose stories I will hear later this morning. Each victim of this recent spike in violent crime is someone’s parent, or child, or friend. And every loss of a young life to guns or drugs is a tragedy we must work to prevent.
My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend. I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place.
While we can hope for the best, we can’t afford to be complacent. When crime rates move in the wrong direction, they can move quickly.
We know this, because those of us above a certain age have lived it. In the early 1960s, crime began to rise in our country. By 1973, crime rates in almost every category had doubled over their levels just a decade before. As the ’70s went on, levels of crime and violence that we once deemed unacceptably high became the “new normal” in America.
I lived through that dark time in our history. I dealt with its consequences every day as a prosecutor. And I can assure you: We do not want to go back to those days. We must act decisively at all levels – federal, state and local – to reverse this rise in violent crime and keep our people safe.
Last month the President gave us clear direction, issuing three executive orders that direct the federal government to reduce crime and restore public safety. This task will be a top priority of the Department of Justice during my time as Attorney General. I’d like to talk briefly about how we’re tackling this challenge.
First, we’re making sure the federal government focuses our resources and efforts on this surge in violent crime. Two weeks ago, I announced the formation of a Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. It includes crime reduction experts from throughout the Department of Justice, including the heads of the FBI, the ATF, the DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service. The task force will evaluate everything we are doing at the federal level.
Second: We need to use every lawful tool we have to get the most violent offenders off our streets.
In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting firearms offenders at the federal level. This trend will end. This Department of Justice will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes.
Last week, I sent a memo to all our federal prosecutors, urging them to work closely with their federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to target the most violent offenders in their districts. 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.
Here in Richmond, you have given us an excellent model for how we can lock up violent criminals and reduce crime.
During the spike in violent crime in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Richmond consistently had one of the top ten per-capita murder rates among American cities. In response, federal prosecutors worked with state and local law enforcement in 1997 to launch an innovative program called Project Exile. Its goal was to deter felons from carrying firearms, and to take off the streets those who were mostly likely to commit gun violence: criminals with guns.
Over the decade that followed, murders and armed robberies in Richmond declined dramatically. A study published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy credited Project Exile with the reduction in gun homicides in Richmond.
This Department of Justice will encourage more efforts like Project Exile in cities across America – coordinated strategies that bring together all levels of law enforcement to reduce gun crime and make our cities safer.
Third: To turn back this rising tide of violent crime, we need to confront the heroin and opioid crisis in our nation – and dismantle the transnational cartels that bring drugs and violence into our neighborhoods.
Our nation is in the throes of a heroin and opioid epidemic. Overdose deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014. According to the CDC, about 140 Americans on average now die from a drug overdose each day. That means every three weeks, we are losing as many American lives to drug overdoses as we lost in the 9/11 attacks.
Illegal drugs are flooding across our southern border and into cities across our country, bringing violence, addiction, and misery. We have also seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs. As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire.
There are three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.
Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product. One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs – and we will do just that.
Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.
So we need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place.
I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use. But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable. I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store. And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.
In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction. We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse.
Finally: The federal government alone cannot meet the challenge of violent crime and drugs – so we need to protect and support our brave men and women in law enforcement. About 85 percent of all law enforcement officers in our nation are not federal, but state and local. These are the men and women on the front lines – the ones doing most of the tough and often dangerous work that keeps our neighborhoods safe.
Unfortunately, in recent years law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors. Too many of our officers, deputies, and troopers believed the political leadership of this country abandoned them. Amid this intense public scrutiny and criticism, their morale has gone down, while the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has gone up.
Many of you who are law enforcement leaders have also told us that in this age of viral videos and targeted killings of police, something has changed in policing. Some law enforcement personnel are more reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the proactive, up-close police work that builds trust and prevents violent crime. In some cities, arrests have fallen even as murder rates have surged.
This is a terrible place to be, because we know that tough and professional law enforcement can make a real difference. It can reduce crime and save lives. We’ve seen it happen in our country over the past four decades.
To turn back rising crime, we must rely heavily on all of you in state and local law enforcement to lead the way – and you must know that you have our steadfast support. The federal government should use its money, research, and expertise to help you figure out what is happening and determine the best ways to fight crime. We should strengthen partnerships between federal and state and local officers. And we should encourage the proactive policing that keeps our neighborhoods safe. This Department of Justice will do just that.
The new challenge of violent crime in our nation is real – and the task that lies before us is clear. We need to resist the temptation to ignore or downplay this crisis. Instead, we must tackle it head-on, to ensure justice and safety for all Americans.
We will enforce our laws and put bad men behind bars. We will fight the scourge of drug abuse. And we will support the brave men and women of law enforcement, as they work day and night to protect us.
Together, let us act to meet this challenge, so that our children will not look back and say that we let slip from our grasp all we had done to make America a safer place.
Thank you for having me here in Richmond today. I look forward to talking with you all and learning from you.
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