DOJ: Federal efforts to reduce violent crime working in Memphis

Henry County Sheriff Monte Belew points out mug shots to Paris Police Chief Chuck Elizondo, Benton County Sheriff Kenny Christopher, Weakley County Sheriff Mike Wilson and U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant. (Photo: Henry County Sheriff’s Office).

Violent crime reports involving guns in Memphis declined nearly 18 percent in the first eight months of 2018, suggesting federal efforts to stifle illegal activity so far prove effective.

The Department of Justice applauded state and local law enforcement in West Tennessee last week for their effective use of federal resources — through Project Safe Neighborhoods — to boost prosecution of dangerous, repeat offenders within their district over the last year.

U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant said Friday the department’s invigoration of extra staff and supplemental funding helped increase the number of federal firearms cases filed by 47 percent and the number of defendants charged with gun offenses by over 61 percent.

“These efforts provide targeted prosecution of the worst-of-the-worst offenders to enhance public safety in Memphis and West Tennessee by removing guns from the hands of dangerous people and removing violent offenders from our communities,” he said.

Project Safe Neighborhoods, first launched in 2001, became the centerpiece of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s strategy for reducing violent crime across the nation — a goal President Donald Trump set for him soon after taking office last year.

“Taking what we have learned since the program began in 2001, we have updated it and enhanced it, emphasizing the role of our U.S. Attorneys, the promise of new technologies, and above all, partnership with local communities,” he said. “With these changes, I believe that this program will be more effective than ever and help us fulfill our mission to make America safer.”

The department awarded $98 million in grants to understaffed local law enforcement agencies and “seed money” to support investigations targeting gangs and traffickers. Some 20 U.S. Attorneys Offices also received 40 additional prosecutors tasked with reducing violent crimes in their respective district.

In Memphis, the targeted efforts resulted in a 15.3 percent in gun crimes during the first six months of 2018. Reductions occurred across all major categories, including a 6.4 percent drop in murder, a 35.1 percent decline in business robberies and a 20.8 percent decrease in aggravated assaults.

“These sustained decreases in reported gun crimes and all major violent gun crime categories are encouraging, and shows that our return to proven enforcement policies under PSN is working,” Dunavant said. “Putting the right people in prison incapacitates the most violent offenders, upholds the rule of law, deters criminal conduct with a strong message of significant consequences, and makes us all safer.”

Nationwide, federal data suggests 2018 could be the DOJ’s busiest year ever in more than a decade for weapons prosecutions.

Should authorities keep up at the current pace, total annual prosecutions will exceed more than 10,000 this year — a 22.5 percent increase over 2017 and up by nearly half over the last five years, according to the Transactional Records Clearing House.

Through Sessions’s own crime-fighting task force, prosecutions for drug crimes, gang violence and gun violations hit historic highs, increasing 8 percent over 2016. Prosecutions for unlawful possession of a firearm — mostly by convicted felons — spiked 23 percent in the second quarter of 2017 alone.

“That sends a clear message to criminals all over this country that if you carry a gun illegally, you will be held accountable,” Sessions said last year. “I am grateful to the many federal prosecutors and agents who are working hard every day to make America safe again.”

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