Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that recent upticks in homicides and other violent crime could be the start of a new national crime wave, and pledged to crack down on rising rates through renewed focus on drug and gun crimes and by improving relationships with police.
Noting that crime levels are still far below the peaks hit in the 1990s, Mr. Sessions pointed to an uptick in murders and violent crime in the last two years as evidence that crime rates are beginning to reverse.
“At this point in history, I sense we could be at a pivotal time,” said Mr. Sessions on Tuesday in his first first major speech as the nation’s top law enforcement officer. “If we take the right actions now, affirm good, effective, proven law enforcement techniques, we can avoid another surge in crime rates in America.”
Speaking to the National Association of Attorneys General, Mr. Sessions on Tuesday announced the establishment of a federal task force dedicated to crime reduction and public safety. The Justice Department-run task force will be tasked with evaluating policies and approaches across the federal government to find deficiencies in current laws that have made them less effective and to collect and better evaluate crime data.
Highlighting the nexus between drugs and crime, the attorney general warned specifically of the problems posed by drug cartels that are able to smuggle massive amounts of heroin across the U.S.-Mexico border and pledged to target their reach.
“The less money they extract out of America, that is sent to their organizations, the less power and less danger they present to their governments and their people and the fewer people are addicted,” he said.
While promising a crackdown on drugs, Mr. Sessions said he remains “dubious” about legalization of marijuana.
“I’m not sure we are going to be a better, healthier nation if we are having marijuana sold at every corner grocery store,” he said.
Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of the drug, and the continuation of the marijuana industry in those states depends on whether or not the federal government, which still considers marijuana illegal, decides to intervene.
The attorney general also promised to rebuild relationships with law enforcement agencies, whom he said have been undermined in recent years.
“Somehow, someway we undermined the respect for our police and made, often times, their job more difficult,” Mr. Sessions said. “And we are not seeing the kind of effective community-based, street -based policing we found to be so effective in reducing crime.”
While noting the Justice Department has “an absolute duty to ensure police operate within the law,” Mr. Sessions said the DOJ needs to “help police departments get better — not diminish their effectiveness.”
“And I’m afraid we’ve done some of that. We are going to try to pull back on this,” Mr. Sessions said.
The remarks come a day after Mr. Sessions, in a briefing with reporters at the Justice Department, said he questioned reports issued by the DOJ that found racial bias and other systematic problems within the Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, police departments.
On Tuesday, Mr. Sessions said the renewed commitment to improving relationships with law enforcement should not be read as “wrong or mean or insensitive to civil rights or human rights.”
“I think it’s out of a concern to make the lives of people in particularly the poor communities, minority communities, to live a safer happier life,” he said.