United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with local leaders in Memphis Thursday, promised a return to a tough-on-crime approach to prosecuting criminals, and drew a protest Downtown.
The purpose of Sessions’ visit to Memphis was to “to speak with federal, state, and local law enforcement about efforts to combat violent crime, and restore public safety.”
Sessions met with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Shelby County Mayor Mark Lutrell, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, Memphis Police Department (MPD) Director Michael Rallings, Bill Gibbons, president and CEO of the Memphis and Shelby County Crime Commission, and more in a breakfast meeting Thursday morning.
Strickland said he used the meeting to ask for more federal resources to fight crime in Memphis, noting that he and Rallings “were frank with Mr. Sessions about our challenges.”
“We asked for continued and expanded grant funding, additional agents to join the Multi-Agency Gang Unit and Organized Crime Unit, and to continue with the (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services’) collaborative review of MPD.”
U.S. Rep. David Kustoff (TN-08) introduced Sessions spring a speech at the Clifford Davis/ Odell Horton Federal Building. Kustoff, once the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said “law enforcement has been under siege here for a long time” and that “under President (Donald) Trump” fighting crime will again become a “top priority.”
During his 20-minute speech, Sessions touched on many major issues including the rise of violent crime in America, his new order to federal prosecutors to “once again charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense in each case,” the opioid epidemic, the need to strengthen the country’s borders, and made a promise that “the Department of Justice will strengthen its partnerships with you.”
“We will encourage the proactive policing that prevents crime,” Sessions said. “We will have the back of all honest and honorable law enforcement officers and prosecutors. And we will stand firm against wrongdoing, abuse or civil rights violations by police.”
Outside the federal building around 100 protestors from many different groups including Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice chanted “hey hey, ho ho, Jeff Sessions has got to go.” Speakers on bullhorns told the crowd that the rights of minority groups are under attack by Sessions and the Trump administration.
At least one counter protester showed up, too. A man with placard that read “I stand with Jeff,” spoke one-on-one to others around. The rest of his placard said that hoped to see decrease in violent crime.
Before Sessions’ speech, Just City, a local criminal reform advocacy group, released a statement about the AG’s visit and, specifically, about his visit with Strickland and Weirich.
That statement touched on Sessions’ stance on marijuana (who once called it “only slightly less awful” than heroine) and tougher sentencing which, Just City officials said, could lead to a higher population at the Shelby County Jail.
“A lot of criminal justice reform is simply the application of logic and common sense,” Just City executive director Josh Spickler said in a statement. “Almost all of Sessions’ policies run completely counter to this.”
“There are causes to crime that should be attacked,” Cohen said in a brief speech on the floor of the U.s. House of Representatives. “There’s a smart way to attack crime and there’s a dumb way to attack crime."
See his full speech here:
Sessions' full remarks can be read below:
Good morning. I am deeply honored to be here with you all today — the selfless and courageous men and women of law enforcement. Thank you for all you do to keep us safe.
My thanks also to our acting U.S. Attorney here in Memphis, Larry Laurenzi, for his hospitality and his leadership. Your forward-leaning approach in the fight against violent crime has not gone unrecognized and is commendable.
As you have experienced right here in Memphis, violent crime is on the rise in America. The murder rate has surged 10 percent nationwide — the largest increase since 1968. Last year, this city experienced a 43 percent increase in homicides and ended up with the highest number of murders ever.
But these aren’t just numbers or statistics. These are people. We are talking about our fellow Americans, whose safety and lives are at stake. They are people like the residents of the Sycamore Lake Apartments, in northeast Memphis.
Last week, two men were shot and killed there during a drug deal, according to local detectives. Tragically, this is no longer uncommon; since 2014, seven people, including a soon-to-be mother and her unborn baby, were murdered just in that apartment complex.
I would ask each of us to imagine, for a moment, what life is like for the law-abiding citizens in that community. Imagine what it does to good people and families that must live every day as hostages in their own homes, facing potentially deadly violence just to walk to the bus, or avoiding certain gang-controlled territory just to get to work.
I hope many of you have already seen the video of Jeffrey Laney. He’s a 6-year-old boy not too far from here in St. Louis. His teenage cousin was shot and killed last month. So he posted a video asking for the violence to end. He said, “I’m really scared to die. I’m a kid. I’m not supposed to be knowing about all these guns. I know all about bad stuff I shouldn’t know about. I’m supposed to be learning about school.” He’s 6 years old.
This is happening in the United States of America — and we will not stand for it.
Every one of our citizens, no matter who they are or where they live, has the right to be safe in their homes and communities from the scourge of criminal gangs, rapists, carjackers, and drug dealers.
We must act to reverse this surge in violent crime and keep our country and every single community safe. Under President Trump’s direction, this Department of Justice is committed to doing its part.
First, I have directed our federal prosecutors to work closely with all of you — our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners. Together, we are going to use every lawful tool we have to take the most violent offenders off our streets. This is just common sense. There are not that many people capable of murdering another human being. The more of them we prosecute, convict, and put in prison, the fewer murders we will have. And with the extra resources in the President’s new budget, we will hire 230 more Assistant United States Attorneys nationwide, to bolster our efforts to fight violent crime.
You all are already carrying out this mission by aggressively investigating and prosecuting Gangster Disciple members, felons in possession of firearms, and armed robbers. I want to specifically call attention to your prosecution of Patrick Owens, who committed an armed robbery of the Bartlett Prescription Shop and is now serving 262 months in federal prison for Hobbs Act robbery and using a firearm during a crime of violence.
You commit robbery, use a gun, and threaten employees — there should be severe consequences. Well done!
Second: Earlier this month, we established a new charging and sentencing policy for the Department of Justice. I have empowered our federal prosecutors to once again charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense in each case. This means we are going to meet our responsibility to advance public safety and enforce the laws with judgment and fairness.
This is the not only the right thing to do, it is what the law requires.
This change in charging and sentencing is especially needed to address some of the factors driving the increase in violent crime — including the epidemic of opioid and heroin abuse in our country.
Today, heroin is easier to find, cheaper, and stronger than ever. You are seeing the results firsthand in Memphis and Shelby County, where heroin-related deaths have skyrocketed by nearly 800 percent in just five years. The country has never seen such deaths from overdoses before.
We know that drugs and crime go hand-in-hand. Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.
Unfortunately, even as violent crime has surged and overdose deaths have spiked, federal gun and drug prosecutions have fallen recent years. We will reverse that trend. This new charging and sentencing policy is a return to the enforcement of the laws as passed by Congress — plain and simple.
If you are a drug trafficker, we will not look the other way and be willfully blind to your conduct.
It’s important to remember that we are not talking about low-level offenders or recreational drug users here. These are criminals arrested with a kilogram of heroin — that is 10,000 doses — or five kilograms of cocaine, or 1,000 kilograms of marijuana. They are drug dealers who profit by selling poison to our fellow Americans.
Under this Department of Justice, they are going to prison.
To turn back the rising tide of violent crime and confront America’s opioid crisis, we must also secure our border. Most of the heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs that kill our fellow citizens and drive so much violent crime enter America through our porous southern border.
Under President Trump’s leadership, our nation is finally getting serious about securing our border. And we are seeing results, with illegal border crossings falling to their lowest monthly figure in at least 17 years.
In addition, I have directed our federal prosecutors to make criminal immigration enforcement a priority, and to appoint a Border Security Coordinator in each of their offices.
We are going to dismantle the transnational cartels and drug traffickers and gangs that bring violence and death to our communities.
If you are a gang member, know this: You think you are targeting us. Well, we are targeting you. We will find you. We will devastate your networks. We will starve your revenue sources, deplete your ranks and seize your profits. We will not concede a single block or street corner to you.
The thousands of excellent federal law enforcement officers who are at the front lines of this fight play a critical role. But, the key forces in the steady reduction in crime that had been occurring until the last few years are our state and local officers.
You make up about 85 percent of all law enforcement personnel in our country, and you are on the front lines of the battle to keep us safe. Improved training, community-based policing, proactive policing, and concepts like “broken windows” have proven their worth. We know they work.
You have my word: this Department of Justice will strengthen its partnerships with you. We will encourage the proactive policing that prevents crime. We will have the back of all honest and honorable law enforcement officers and prosecutors. And we will stand firm against wrongdoing, abuse or civil rights violations by police.
Finally, while good law enforcement is essential, something more is required.
We need people of goodwill to take on the problems and heal the wounds that are beyond the long arm of the law — the wounds of despair and addiction; of broken homes and missing fathers. I look forward to meeting later today with religious leaders from the Memphis area who are doing this kind of good work.
But for that work to succeed, for those good seeds to grow, they can’t fall on the rocky soil of neighborhoods suffering from violence and chaos. To grow, they need the fertile soil of safe streets and cities — places where law-abiding citizens can live without fear.
Providing those safe places, where life can grow and thrive, is the calling all of us who work in law enforcement. And that is what we will do, so all Americans can enjoy the blessings of safety and justice.
Thank you all for choosing to do this noble work. And know this….We have your back, and you have our thanks.