MINNEAPOLIS -- In a Twin Cities appearance United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned that violent crimes and drug trafficking is on the rise in the nation, and called on prosecutors to aggressively battle street gangs.
Sessions addressed hundreds of prosecutors from across the nation who gathered at the downtown Minneapolis Hilton Hotel for the National Association of District Attorneys annual meeting.
"We can never cede a single neighborhood, or a block or a street corner to gangs and thugs," Sessions told the group, citing newspapers stories from Minneapolis.
"Much of our rising murder rate is indeed, I am now convinced, a product of violent gang activity."
He challenged the prosecutors to pursue more gun crimes, and pledged that federal prosecutors are stepping up such cases.
"We've got a lot of people who want to pass more gun laws, but they’re not as enthusiastic, it seems to me, about prosecution the ones we've got," the Attorney General remarked.
"I think if we work together and hammer criminals who carry guns during crimes, that possess firearms after having been convicted of a felony, we will have a positive impact."
Sessions said he believes the uptick in violent crimes in the past few years is not just an aberration, but the beginning of what could a long slide into the high crime rates that plagued the nation in the 1980s if left unchecked.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who became the president of the national prosecutors group on Monday, said that the prosecutors at the event reflect a wide spectrum of political views, but share common goals of public safety.
"He was the attorney general in Alabama, he was United States Attorney there," Freeman told reporters. "He’s a prosecutor. We know he understands what we do, because he did it himself.
Focus at Justice Dept.
Sessions noted that opioid overdoses are up nationwide and in Minnesota, at alarming rates.
Sessions urged prosecutors to adopt the same philosophy when it comes to prescription drug abuse that his office maintained while he was the U.S. Attorney in Alabama.
"The essence of it, as I remember was this: if you catch somebody with illegal prescription drugs, don’t plea bargain with them until they tell you where they got them. And things start going back to common sources."
The Attorney General said one of the executive orders from President Trump is to cooperate as much as possible with local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies.
"Our mission is to reduce crime in America, not preside over its increase, but he directed us to reduce crime," Session explained. "And I take that very seriously, I believe we have an opportunity to make a difference."
He didn't mention any of the high-profile officer-involved shootings that have roiled the Twin Cities in the past two years, including one on Sunday night. But Sessions drew applause praising the overall role of police.
"We will aggressively prosecutor federal and state officers who violate civil rights of our citizens – that cannot, can never be accepted," he said. "But we will take care to never demean or offer unwarranted criticism of the honorable, brave and professional law enforcement officers who protect us every day."
He said he still endorses proactive law enforcement tactics, including the "broken windows" strategy of chasing smaller crimes, such as vandalism and public drunkenness, as a means to stemming more serious crimes.
Although enforcement of immigration laws is largely a federal function, the Attorney General said that federal agencies are making progress in discouraging illegal entry into the United States.
"We’ve added 75 additional immigration judges – we’ve got to end the backlog, end the catch-and-release."
Crime stats confusion
Sessions also said violent crimes in Minneapolis were up by 17 percent so far this year, and that the murder rate had climbed 40 percent compared to a year ago. The Minneapolis Police Department offered different statistics, saying violent crimes have risen only four percent compared to last year, and the murder rate had increased six percent during that period.
A spokesperson for the Attorney General cited the January to June Minneapolis Police crime statistics report as a source, and said that Sessions was referring to the FBI's Part 1 crimes, which include homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson. That category did rise by 17 percent in the first six months of 2017.
When Part 1 crimes are averaged with Part 2 crimes -- simple assault, vandalism, weapons, prostitution, sex offenses, narcotics, drunk driving, other offenses -- the overall total is four percent.
The murder totals in the same report showed 17 murders, compared to 12 during the same six month period in 2016. That's how Sessions and his staff arrived at a 40 percent increase in murders. But the Minneapolis Police Dept. on Monday said there had only been one additional murder compared to 2016, which is how staff arrived at the figure of a 5.8 percent increase.
Sessions visited the U.S. Attorney's office in Minneapolis before leaving the city, and also spoke to the leaders of several federal law enforcement agencies, including Customs and Immigration Enforcement.