Jeff Sessions, who has warned of an American crime epidemic since taking on the role of attorney general, admitted to a crowd in St Louis consisting mostly of law enforcement members that US crime remains near historic lows, despite a recent uptick.
“Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980. We have driven the violent crime rate down to almost half of what it was at its peak,” Sessions said. Sessions has previously said a recent crime increase was indicative of a “dangerous permanent trend”, a contention criminologists have said has “no evidence” to support it.
But, Sessions’ brief concession was really just a prelude to a larger point. The attorney general reiterated fears that he has expressed since his nomination by Donald Trump that the country is on a path to a more violent future.
“While we can hope for the best, hope is not a strategy. When crime rates move in the wrong direction, they can move fast,” Sessions said.
Sessions’ remarks were delivered just a few miles from Ferguson, Missouri, where nearly three years ago, the death of Michael Brown inspired a wave of protests and activism against the excessive use of force by police officers.
A justice department report in the wake of the unrest uncovered rank racial discrimination by the police department and exploitation by the city bureaucracy aimed at black residents. Sessions has previously said that he hasn’t read the report, or other similar ones produced by the Obama-era justice department, and that he would like his department to not produce or follow any more like them because of their impact on the morale of law enforcement.
“Unfortunately, in recent years, law enforcement as a whole has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable deeds of a few bad actors,” Sessions said on Friday.
Sessions noted his recent call for US prosecutors to ramp up their efforts against violent and drug criminals as an example of the type of strategy he is directing law enforcement to adopt.
St Louis had the most murders in the US per capita in 2015 and has been one of the most dangerous cities in the country for more than a decade. It has also seen increased drug activity recently, probably inspiring Sessions’ visit to push the administration’s narrative that crime rates will soon be out of control.
Sessions paid lip service to crime prevention efforts and programs as something his justice department was “looking at”, but devoted the majority of his remarks in St Louis to enforcement.
That struck community advocates as misguided, or at least the wrong point of emphasis. “One outreach worker can do more to reduce crime in a neighborhood than five police officers can,” said James Clark, vice-president of community outreach for the St Louis not-for-profit group Better Family Life.
“If we continue to lay the issue of crime and violence at the feet of the police department, then that’s a very short-sighted, not well thought-out approach.”
The St Louis city alderman Jeffrey Boyd added: “Let’s remind ourselves of when Ronald Reagan came into office and there was this war on drugs campaign, and then Bill Clinton came in with ‘three strikes you’re out’. It didn’t help the African American community or the poor community. It ended up being a disaster generations later,” Boyd said, noting the disproportionate impact that mass incarceration has had on the black community.
Boyd lost three male relatives to gun violence in 2015 alone and represents the area of the city the Guardian identified in January as the most violent neighborhood in the nation.
“I would have been more excited if he was coming here to say we’re going to put more money into prevention,” Boyd said, emphasizing the value of programs such as the city’s current multimillion-dollar initiative to pull down abandoned structures and replace them with green space. “Eliminating slum and blight is always a great opportunity to minimize some of the violence in the neighborhood because it takes away hiding spaces.”
Clark’s Better Family Life (BFL) emphasizes a similar approach to the drug and violence problems that trouble the city, especially its northern, predominantly black neighborhoods.
“It takes a grassroots, hands-on approach to stabilize the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the St Louis Metropolitan area,” Clark said.
“We’ve started a lightbulb campaign because, of course, if you have a light on, if the whole block is lit up, then prostitution is less likely, drug usage is less likely, and crime is less likely.” BFL also engages in what Clark calls triage in the most vulnerable neighborhoods, offering drug treatment, condom distribution and general outreach.