WASHINGTON—Bush administration officials are scrambling to demonstrate that they're addressing sharp jumps in violent crime in some cities, in an attempt to reclaim a traditionally Republican issue amid criticism from some Democrats, mayors and police chiefs.
Senior Justice Department officials sought Tuesday to highlight the administration's multipronged programs for combating growing gang violence and outbreaks of juvenile crime. The renewed emphasis comes as some experts, as well as politicians, cite federal cuts in city and state law enforcement funding as a possible contributor to spikes in murders, robberies and assaults in medium-sized cities.
While criminal justice experts stress that the jumps in crime over the last 18 months in cities such as Charlotte, N.C.; Cleveland, Ohio; Memphis, Tenn.; Minneapolis and Sacramento, Calif., may not represent a long-term upswing, they're watching to see if President Bush proposes more anti-crime funding in his State of the Union Address next week.
"There's no locomotive coming down the track saying we have to have a high homicide rate," Lawrence Sherman, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, said Tuesday. "What it's more like is a bubbling cauldron that could either boil over or go back down to simmer."
Chuck Wexler, who heads a think tank for police departments across the country that has monitored crime trends in cities, said the data over the last 18 months suggest that the crime surge "isn't a statistical aberration."
After 14 years of declines in crime, police in some communities began to report double-digit increases. That left the administration vulnerable to criticism because the crime jumps came after the White House instigated $1 billion in cuts in anti-crime funding since 2001 as it shifted its focus to the war on terrorism.
Among the casualties was a Clinton administration program to hire 100,000 police officers.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that federal anti-crime funding has never made up more than 4 percent of total state and local law enforcement spending nationwide.
Sherman said that while federal funding would help police patrol hot spots during high-crime periods, local police departments could address the issue by renegotiating police union contracts that limit officers' shifts.
Other researchers agree that the reasons for the rise in crime are more complicated than money, and they vary from city to city. They point to factors such as increasing gun-, gang- and drug-related violence; growing juvenile crime; a deep hopelessness among poor, young black men; and an upsurge in prison releases after years of record numbers of incarcerations.
The rise in gang activity, in particular, has drawn the attention of the Justice Department and the FBI. At a briefing Tuesday, Alice Fisher, chief of the department's Criminal Division, Assistant FBI Director Chip Burrus and two other officials described efforts to crack down on gangs, especially national and international gangs, such as the Salvadoran la Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13.
Unlike the centralized, crack-dealing gangs of the 1990s, Burrus said today's gangs are more neighborhood-based. "They're local, they're violent, and we really have to do something about it," Burrus said.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales set up a National Anti-Gang Task Force last year, and a coordinating center now links half a dozen federal law enforcement agencies with local police departments.
Shortly before November's elections, Gonzales announced a Justice Department study of 18 cities to assess what local anti-crime tactics were working best.
The government also has learned from the intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 terror attacks and has set up a National Gang Intelligence Center to ensure that local and national law enforcement agencies share the latest data, Burrus said. In addition, the Justice Department has distributed $2.5 million to cities with acute gang problems: Los Angeles, Tampa, Fla.; Cleveland, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Milwaukee and a string of cities in eastern Pennsylvania.
Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie-Mellon University professor who studies crime trends, said that in many cases, the gun violence isn't generated by a formal gang but by loose groups of young men who "have a low threshold of insult" and will do whatever is needed to take revenge.
Democrats have seized on the issue in recent weeks. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., recently wrote the FBI urging a response to the "alarming" crime data and noting the "drastic cuts" in federal anti-crime funding. The Milwaukee Police Department, for example, has blamed $1 million in federal funding cuts for the loss of 55 police officers.
Wexler, who heads the Police Executive Research Forum, met recently with top Justice Department officials and said that there is "no question" they're refocusing attention on crime.
"I think the Justice Department is getting it," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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