Attorney General Jeff Sessions painted a grim vision of violence in America on Tuesday, telling state law enforcement officials that a recent uptick in murders threatens to undo decades of progress. He pledged to "put bad men behind bars."
In his first major policy speech as attorney general, Sessions promised that combating violent crime would be a top priority of the Justice Department. He warned of a surging heroin epidemic with drugs pouring in from Mexico, of police officers made to feel overly cautious for fear of being captured on "viral videos" and of rising homicide rates in big cities.
"We are diminished as a nation when any of our citizens fear for their life when they leave their home; or when terrified parents put their children to sleep in bathtubs to keep them safe from stray bullets; or when entire neighborhoods are at the mercy of drug dealers, gangs and other violent criminals," Sessions said, according to prepared remarks to the National Association of Attorneys General.
Sessions promised that his Justice Department would prioritize cases against violent offenders, aggressively enforce immigration laws and work to dismantle drug cartels. He announced the creation of a multi-agency task force, to be headed by the deputy attorney general, to propose crime-fighting legislation and study crime trends. He said the task force would include the heads of Justice Department agencies such as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Although it is true, according to FBI statistics, that homicide and other violent crimes have recently been on the rise, the numbers are nowhere close to where they were in the 1980s and early 1990s, and it's hardly clear that the recent spike reflects a trend rather than an anomaly.
Sessions' early focus on drug and violent crime is a radical departure for a Justice Department that has viewed as more urgent the prevention of cyberattacks from foreign criminals, international bribery and the threat of homegrown violent extremism.
Yet Sessions made no apologies for his focus on violent crime, saying he was concerned the increase could be part of a "dangerous new trend."
"We need to enforce our laws and put men behind bars," said the former Alabama senator and federal prosecutor. "And we need to support the brave men and women of law enforcement as they work day and night to protect us."
He also indicated that, unlike his Democratic-appointed predecessors, he believes some police officers have pulled back on enforcement because of anxiety their actions could be recorded on video and scrutinized by the public.
"They're more reluctant to get out of their squad cars and do the hard but necessary work of up-close policing that builds trust and prevents violent crime," Sessions said.
FBI Director James Comey has floated the idea that the change in police behavior could help explain increases in crime, although former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch both refused to embrace that idea.
Past attorneys general have used their appearances before their state counterparts to make policy pronouncements.
In 2014, for instance, Holder said state attorneys general were not obligated to defend laws in their states banning same-sex marriage if the laws discriminate in a way forbidden by the Constitution.