- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Barely into the new year, we’ve seen troubling video of suspicious shootings by police officers in New Orleans and in Oakland, Calif., that sparked a fiery protest and resulted in at least three dozen arrests. Baltimore and D.C. residents already have seen spikes in their homicide rates.

The crimes happened just weeks after the release of a disturbing Northeastern University study called “The Recent Surge in Homicides Involving Young Black Males and Guns: Time to Reinvest in Prevention and Crime Control.”

“Federal support for policing and youth violence prevention has declined sharply in recent years, perhaps precipitated by complacency brought about by the significant 1990s decline in crime,” said professors James Alan Fox and Marc L. Swatt, who authored the study based on Justice Department statistics. “The resurgence in homicide, especially among minority youth, signals the importance of restoring federal funds for crime prevention and crime control.”

Law enforcement officials and researchers generally agree that crime rises as economic times toughen, especially in communities already stressed by poverty and unemployment.

Who aside from the next U.S. attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official, will have to tackle this impending uptick?

The hardest questions posed to the nominee for the post, Eric H. Holder Jr., during his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, should focus on his approach to stemming resurgent crime.

Will Mr. Holder - the former deputy attorney general, U.S. attorney for the District and D.C. Superior Court judge who now defends corporations and high-profile clients in a posh downtown D.C. law firm - be soft on crime? Will Mr. Holder administer justice fairly, or have one standard for white-collar crime and a tougher one for street crime?

Knowing him from his days dealing with D.C. courts and criminals, I’d submit that the answers are most likely “no” and “no.”

“Don’t look for any favors from” Mr. Holder, said Billy Martin, a former federal prosecutor turned high-profile defense attorney who most recently represented football star Michael Vick in his dogfighting case. “Eric does not give you anything as a prosecutor.”

Mr. Martin said Mr. Holder “got his props and recognition as a tough prosecutor” during the Abscam corruption trials of the early 1980s. “He’s always firm and fair, and he has a reputation as a tough prosecutor on white-collar crime as well as street crime,” Mr. Martin said. “He prosecutes the facts, not the person.”

However, Republicans such as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are gunning for Mr. Holder, and his Cabinet confirmation is viewed as the most difficult among President-elect Barack Obama’s nominees.

I heard people speak only of Mr. Holder’s integrity. Others have raised Mr. Holder’s involvement, or lack thereof, in President Clinton’s last-minute pardon of Marc Rich, the fugitive financier. Mr. Holder has acknowledged slight culpability in this case, which undoubtedly will receive more scrutiny.

Can Mr. Holder be independent enough of the president-elect and restore the behemoth department to its former stature?

“Eric is the right person to lead the Department of Justice in the 21st century,” said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who had a stint as a D.C. public defender.

As the first black U.S. attorney for the District, Mr. Holder became known for establishing critical community outreach and bridging the distrustful gap between the federal prosecutor’s office and the local residents. That dissension existed primarily because of the prior lack of minority representation in the U.S. attorney’s office and the unique legal status in which the federal prosecutors handled all local cases.

Mr. Holder, 57, gained so much stature and trust with his hands-on community initiatives that he was frequently pushed to run for D.C. mayor.

During his tenure, I came to know Mr. Holder as the straight-arrow prosecutor in the public arena, but I also got a glimpse of the private man.

In a 1998 interview in the Holder’s real-life “Huxtable” household, it was clear from his genteel interaction with his wife, Dr. Sharon Malone, a prominent obstetrician and gynecologist, and his playfulness with their three children, that being a good husband and father are his priorities.

At the time, Mr. Holder said, “I’m on a marriage campaign” to tout benefits of such a union when so many were divorcing.

For this reason, it is not hard to determine why Mr. Holder and Mr. Obama, also a devoted father and husband, hit it off.

The Holders, who were raised in intact families, said they were daily witnesses to sometimes devastating consequences of single parenthood for both the parent and child. They bemoaned the number of fatherless children Mr. Holder sees in the criminal justice system and the number of unwed mothers Dr. Malone sees in the delivery room.

Though the FBI’s crime figures showed a drop in violent crime in 2007 compared with 2006, the Northeastern University professors said, “The news contrasts sharply with the experience of countless Americans living (and some dying) in violence-infested neighborhoods - those for whom the frightening sound of gunfire is a far too frequent occurrence.”

However, Mr. Fox and Mr. Swatt concluded: “It is not that the FBI figures tell an inaccurate story about crime trends in America. Rather, they obscure the divergent tale of two communities - one prosperous and safe, the other poor and crime-ridden. The truth behind the fears and concerns of the nation’s underclasses about crime and violence lies deep beneath the FBI statistical report.”

As someone who took great pains to provide personal outreach in those distressed communities, Mr. Holder should know firsthand what needs to be done to reduce crime. The experience and expertise, above all, should be the key factors for determining the worthiness of anyone seeking to be the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

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