Are ‘Orders’ from the Tweeter-in-Chief Legally Enforceable?

Based on recent precedent, it seems safe to assume that the FBI and Department of Justice will ignore President Trump’s tweets calling for investigations into cases like the recent unsigned op ed in The New York Times. But how long can we rely upon this assumption? 

While many commentators have written about President Trump’s predilection for interpreting law via Twitter (whether the actions of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in allegedly arranging “hush money” payoffs, were a crime, for example), a different presidential tweet poses even more difficult questions.

After Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed to not allowing the Department of Justice to be improperly influenced by political considerations, the President tweeted the following:

Jeff, this is GREAT, what everyone wants, so look into all of the corruption on the “other side” including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr…FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems – and so much more. Open up the papers & documents without redaction? Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!

While the tweet about Michael Cohen’s actions not being a crime raised questions about whether the tweet constitutes a legal determination that is binding on the executive branch, the tweet about Sessions amounts, in my view, to what appears to be a presidential directive to investigate political opponents.

To what extent may federal authorities, particularly the DOJ and the FBI, respond in ways that are consistent with their interpretation of law and policy?

The question has become even thornier with the president’s recent comment that Sessions should investigate an anonymous Op Ed published by the New York Times. The author of the Op Ed claimed that members of the administration have worked to thwart some of the president’s agenda and inclinations, though he did not suggest any crimes were committed.

On the face of it, there is no reason why such an unclassified Op Ed would not be protected by the First Amendment.

The jabs at Sessions thus raise questions about a president’s constitutional duty—as Chief Executive—to “take care that the laws [be] faithfully executed” (Article II). Let me try to unpack some of those questions from the vantage point of the civil servants actually conducting investigations.

In other words, when President Trump calls for Sessions to investigate Op Eds or look into the “other side,” what does that mean for investigators?

Most FBI agents don’t carry around a copy of the Constitution in their pocket (well, some probably do), but they all have easy access to the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG), which “applies to all investigative activities and intelligence collection activities conducted by the FBI within the United States” (DIOG, § 1.1).

More generally, as both an intelligence agency and a law enforcement agency within the Department of Justice, the FBI’s power is dependent upon the authority vested in the office of the Attorney General, who may delegate authority to the FBI’s officials. This has been done in part through the DIOG, as well as through documents such as the Attorney General’s.

These documents standardize the FBI’s investigation policy in national security and criminal law cases. Specifically, the DIOG permits four basic ways for the FBI to “look into” crime:

  • Assessments
  • Preliminary Investigations
  • Full Investigations, and
  • Enterprise Investigations

An Assessment is the most basic type of formal FBI investigation. Notably, the DIOG states that “[a]lthough ‘no particular factual predication’ is required, the basis of an Assessment cannot be arbitrary or groundless speculation, nor can an Assessment be based solely on the exercise of First Amendment protected activities…FBI employees who conduct Assessments are responsible for ensuring that Assessments are not pursued for frivolous or improper purposes….” (DIOG, § 5.1).

The DIOG goes into great detail about the various types of Assessments that may be opened and the standards for conducting them. As one would expect, moving to Preliminary (DIOG, § 6), Full (DIOG, § 7), and Enterprise Investigations (DIOG, § 8) requires even more exacting rules with respect to investigative scope, predication, techniques, and so on.

Preliminary Investigations are predicated based upon “’allegation or information’ indicative of possible criminal activity or threats to the national security” (DIOG, § 6.1), while Full Investigations are predicated upon an “’articulable factual basis’ of possible criminal or national threat activity” (DIOG, § 7.1).

Finally, Enterprise Investigations are opened as Full Investigations, but with respect to “a group or organization that may be involved in the most serious criminal or national security threats to the public” (DIOG, § 8.1).

Does the unsigned Op Ed, or for that matter, the suggestion to look at corruption “on the other side” fulfill any of these four guidelines for launching an investigation?

Working outside of this stringent framework would indeed be uncharted territory—at least since President Richard Nixon (and presidents before him) ordered investigations that resulted in solely political and personal information unrelated to national security.

So it hasn’t been terribly long since presidents successfully used the FBI as their personal spy agency.

The US Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (or the “Church Committee”) helped expose a variety of widespread information-gathering tactics—including illegal searches and surveillance under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s.

Based on recent precedent, it seems safe to assume that the FBI and Department of Justice will ignore requests for investigations without a firm, non-arbitrary investigative basis that is consistent with policy.

But how long can we rely upon this assumption?

And there is a deeper question that has higher stakes: If there is disagreement about whether the Executive is taking care that the law be executed faithfully, what are the long-term implications for the rule of law in the United States given a dysfunctional executive branch?

Our history illuminates how executive authority and discretionary power have grown to such a degree that it is trending toward illiberal practices and policies. This is not a Republican or a Democratic problem. It is a broader problem regarding the limits imposed by the legal, political, and philosophical norms of a constitutional democracy in the liberal tradition.

Luke Hunt

Luke William Hunt

Although it may sound alarmist, the evidence suggests that we are returning to an older model of executive power that entertains political whims. There is no doubt that presidential executive power includes a great deal of discretion, but all of us should take care that we remain a state governed by the rule of law—not executive discretion.

Luke William Hunt is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Radford University. After law school and a federal judicial clerkship, he worked for seven years as an FBI Special Agent and Supervisory Special Agent in Charlottesville, VA, and Washington, D.C. After leaving government service, he completed his doctoral work in philosophy at the University of Virginia. He is the author of “The Retrieval of Liberalism in Policing,” forthcoming with Oxford University Press.


How Criminal Justice Reform Can Move Forward in the Trump Era

Criminal justice reforms are under attack in the Trump era and require immediate attention from state and local governments,  as well as action from the formerly incarcerated, according to a Yale Law professor. 

Criminal justice reforms are under attack in the Trump era and require immediate attention from state and local governments, as well as action from the formerly incarcerated, according to a Yale Law professor.

Author Miriam Gohara, writing in the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said that progressive criminal justice reformers must remain vigilant to threats against rollbacks of mass incarceration, particularly when Attorney General Jeff Sessions “has redoubled his commitment to policies designed to put more people behind bars.”

Gohara cited Sessions’s May 2017 memorandum to U.S. Attorneys requiring federal line prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charges against defendants as one rollback to criminal justice reform.

The memo rescinded then-Attorney General Eric Holder’s 2013 directive that federal prosecutors should avoid charges to which mandatory minimum sentences would apply to certain low-level non-violent drug offenders.

Aside from “executive branch policy,” she also noted Sessions has remained staunchly opposed to legislative sentencing reform, even when his stance puts him at odds with congressional Republicans and other conservatives.

For instance, during President Trump’s first year in office, Republican Senator Charles Grassley introduced a criminal justice reform bill that included provisions curtailing the applicability of mandatory minimums and reducing enhanced penalties for previous drug crimes.

Sessions, citing concerns about rising violent crime rates, called the bill a “grave error.”

Gohara proposed that justice reform should be left to local governments and formerly incarcerated.

More, she suggested that they focus on reforms that address non-violent crime.

First, she he advised local policymakers reward, replicate, and expand local reforms because the building blocks of mass incarceration were laid by countless state and federal politicians, policymakers, prosecutors, and judges for the past four decades.

But local governments also have the power to unravel mass incarceration, if they so choose.

“The good news is new initiatives have begun in many places, and federal policy will have little, if any, detrimental effect on most state and local reforms,” Gohara wrote.

Non-violent should be at the heart of criminal justice reform, she continued.

Notably, most Americans are sitting in prison for non-violent offenses, which is why “any meaningful dismantling of mass incarceration will need to reckon with punishment for violent offenses.”

Last, Gohara argued formerly incarcerated people have a large role to play in justice reform. They should be “co architects” of a new framework for justice.

In reality, imprisoned people are also disproportionately victimized by crime.

So, by bringing together the formerly incarcerated population and victims of crime, both parties can work together to reform the system.

This “creates a powerful opportunity for crime survivors who have served time in prison to join forces with those who have not to identify a reform agenda that treats everyone swept into the criminal justice system with humanity,” the law professor concluded.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

Megan Hadley is a staff reporter for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Caught in White House Turf War, Federal Prison Boss Quit

Last week, Mark Inch suddenly walked away from his job as director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The New York Times says that his surprising departure after nine months on the job was prompted by policy gamesmanship between Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.

A turf war between presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner and Attorney General Jeff Sessions prompted the sudden resignation last week of Mark Inch, who served just nine months ago as director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, reports the New York Times. Inch, a retired Army major general, had complained to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that Sessions had largely excluded him from major staffing, budget and policy decisions. Inch also felt marginalized by Kushner in drafting prison reform legislation, officials said. He found himself caught in an ideological turf war between Kushner, who has championed reforms to the corrections system and more lenient federal sentencing, and Sessions, who has opposed significant parts of the bipartisan prison reform bill that Kushner backs.

The departure of Inch, who tried to navigate a middle course, creates a vacuum at a time when the bureau is grappling with issues such as workplace harassment, violence, gang activity, sentencing fairness and the funding of rehabilitation programs. “It’s disappointing,” said Jack Donson of FedCure, a nonprofit advocacy group for federal inmates. “The bureau finally gets someone from outside the culture who can, maybe, clean things out and within nine months he’s been railroaded out the door.” But some see Inch’s exit as an opening for Trump to take a more sweeping approach that would include sentencing reform — one of the few issues that offer him a chance for the kind of big, bipartisan deal he promised during the 2016 campaign.“The rap against General Inch is that he wasn’t a real reformer. In that sense, his departure is an opportunity,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.


The Newest Allies for Pot Legalization: Conservatives

In an unlikely reversal of roles, key conservative Republicans are supporting state moves to legalize medical or recreational marijuana, while progressive Democrats are wary. That could trump hardcore opponents like AG Jeff Sessions, says an addiction specialist.

Now that marijuana legalization seems to have reached a tipping point, it may be necessary for conservatives in politics and government to give it that last push to legalization at the federal level.

At least 28 states already have legalized medical marijuana use and nine of those have also approved recreational use. Voters in three more states seem poised to approve medical use this November, and another may add recreational use.

As many as eight other states have at least a chance of some form of legalization sometime this year.

It’s not a surprise, then, that longtime anti-cannabis warrior and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to enforce the federal marijuana laws and wage drug war on states that have willfully violated those laws.

The fact that those violations almost exclusively were at the behest of their voters doesn’t matter.

On average more Democrats than Republicans seem to favor marijuana legalization—although even 90 percent of Republicans support making medical marijuana legal. Recreational pot gets a thumbs-up from 51 percent of Republicans, though much of that support comes from younger cohorts.

In Michigan, where a recreational legalization proposal has made it onto the November ballot, the Republican-majority legislature considered passing an identical law first to keep at least some Democrat supporters home.

Relatively few Democrats and liberals in Congress have come out for legalization, perhaps fearful of seeming like extreme leftists or otherwise “soft” on drugs or crime. Even former US President Barack Obama, who had a reputation as a heavy-duty toker in college, didn’t do much to push a pro-legalization agenda.

Sitting politicians of either stripe seem far more reluctant to embrace those state laws, oftentimes doing what they can to prevent the laws going into effect or adding requirements—such as not allowing marijuana in cigarette or vape form, or delaying or refusing to grant the licenses to marijuana businesses.

In New York, one of the more progressive states in the country, marijuana legalization has been opposed by progressive Democrats.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted all moves towards legalizing cannabis, as has New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Now Cuomo—perhaps due to the inevitability, possibly because of a primary challenge from actress and marijuana proponent Cynthia Nixon—“has appointed a commission to study the issue”. De Blasio also—maybe bowing to pressure from his district attorneys—agreed to stop arresting marijuana users where there is no public safety concer, citing apparent racist enforcement of existing laws.

Still, many observers believe that the momentum towards marijuana legalization in the US reached a point of no return just in time for this year’s 4/20 informal cannabis celebration.

What’s changed? For an answer, look to some top conservative Republicans.

Current president Donald Trump doesn’t seem to believe in anything more intoxicating than cola—his elder brother died of alcoholism-related causes—but he’s been of at least two minds about marijuana legalization.

He appointed ferocious marijuana opponent Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and Trump’s first Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, also opposed legalization in the strongest possible terms.

During the presidential campaign, however, Trump more-or-less stated he would let the states decide whether and how to legalize marijuana. His choice of Sessions seemed to be a reversal, but lately, it seems as if he’s been holding Sessions back.

Last month he agreed, under pressure from Colorado’s Republican US Sen. Cory Gardner to not interfere with Colorado’s marijuana industry. (Gardner had vowed to block every Justice Department nominee until he received such a reassurance.).

Another politician who recently has reversed himself and now supports legalization—at least for medical use and study—is former House Speaker John Boehner. He has joined the board of Acreage Holdings, a cannabis company “with cultivation, processing and dispensing operations across 11 states.”

In 2011, Boehner wrote, “I am unalterably opposed to the legalization of marijuana or any other FDA Schedule I drug” because he was “concerned that legalization will result in increased abuse of all varieties of drugs, including alcohol.”

Now, Boehner says, “my thinking on cannabis has evolved. I’m convinced de-scheduling the drug is needed so we can do research, help our veterans, and reverse the opioid epidemic ravaging our communities”.

Cynics might say the money Boehner will no doubt receive was a motivating factor, but opponents of legalization face similar suspicions.

Former Rhode Island Democrat Patrick Kennedy is and has been a strong opponent of legalization. Just last month he urged Congress not to do as fellow Democrat Chuck Schumer proposed and legalize marijuana.

Kennedy’s opposition seems to come from deeply held beliefs, and his experience of addiction personally and among his family in general. Kennedy, whose father was Sen. Ted Kennedy, has seen the effects of alcoholism as a son and in his personal life. He also had an addiction to prescription pills and other drugs, and suffered from bipolar disorder.

(Mental illness and drug addiction often go together; it’s called a dual diagnosis.)

Kennedy is an “honorary adviser” for Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), though a more accurate name would be No Approaches to Marijuana. Among its goals are:

  • Stopping and reversing “the commercialization and normalization of marijuana,” including preventing the creation of a Big Marijuana after the model of Big Tobacco.
  • Finding “a middle road between incarceration and legalization”.
  • Decreasing “marijuana use and its consequences.“

According to SAM, it wants “an approach that neither legalizes nor demonizes marijuana.” They don’t believe it’s healthy or helpful, though they wouldn’t imprison users or prevent research.

Kennedy also is a founder of Advocates for Opioid Recovery (AOR), which promotes non-moralistic and scientific opiate addiction treatment, and The Kennedy Forum which promotes effective behavioral health treatment.

What gives some pause is that a firm that makes a scientific opiate addiction treatment of the kind advocated by AOR has contributed to one or more of his organizations, and Kennedy is on the board of an addiction treatment center.

One of Kennedy’s co-founders of AOR is conservative former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. While in 1996 he called for the execution of dealers of drugs, including marijuana, in 1982 he wrote in support of medical marijuana in the Journal of the American Medical Association. During his 2012 campaign for president, he said (without fanfare) that he wasn’t in favor of busting people for marijuana possession.

Other conservatives who have voiced some support for the relaxation of marijuana laws include Meghan McCain (daughter of Arizona Sen. John McCain), right-wing pundit Glenn Beck, former Alaskan mayor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Fox News host Sean Hannity and televangelist Pat Robertson.

Not that there’s a full red wave of legalization support.

Last year the final report of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis—led by former New Jersey Governor and Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie—was opposed to marijuana use even as a treatment for opioid addiction.

Still, as the worst fears of recreational marijuana opponents fail to materialize in states such as Colorado, Washington, and California, and with full legalization of cannabis in Canada likely to begin by summer’s end, politicians are faced with the consequences of not legalizing marijuana: lost profits, tax revenues, and credibility.

In almost a half-a-century of the War on Drugs and “Just Say No,” Americans have learned they can’t believe what their government says about the dangers of marijuana. Their own experience refutes it.

Prohibition never works when what you’re prohibiting is something the people want or maybe need.

Stephen Bitsoli

Stephen Bitsoli

Many Americans, including war veterans, believe marijuana helps them cope with their post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic pain. Marijuana can be harmful, but so can any legal product, most notably tobacco, alcohol and prescription opiate drugs.

Conservatives often espouse Henry David Thoreau’s belief “That government is best which governs least.”

Some are now concluding that should apply to marijuana, too.

Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction, politics and related matters for several blogs. He welcomes readers’ comments.


‘Tough Love’ for Mississippi Gun Offenders: An Out-of-State Prison Term

Under an initiative inspired by the Trump Administration’s crime crackdown, the U.S. attorney in Jackson, Ms., plans to expel convicted gun offenders outside the state. But criminologists say “Project EJECT” will complicate efforts to help returning prisoners rebuild their lives.

On a cool, breezy and overcast morning this past December, U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst called a press conference on the steps of the U.S. District Court in downtown Jackson, Ms.

President Donald Trump, who had appointed Hurst the previous June in a second wave of U.S. attorney nominees, described him as sharing “the president’s vision for ‘Making America Safe Again.'”

A sign with a large red button and “Project EJECT” written across the center leaned on a tripod easel.

Hurst had invited media, Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, Hinds County Sheriff Victor Mason, FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Christopher Freeze, and clergy to stand by him as he unveiled Project EJECT (Empower Jackson Expel Crime Together).

“Today is a new day,” Hurst began, adding, “(T)he message to violent criminals in Jackson is simple: you break the law, you terrorize our neighborhoods, and you will be ejected from our community.”

Hurst has charged 35 people since he first announced the anti-crime initiative in late 2017. In the next two months, 13 people are going to trial before a federal jury of their peers to decide whether they will be among the first ejected from Jackson under the strategy that Hurst, Freeze and Sessions embrace, with (qualified) support from the City of Jackson.

But the program has already prompted skepticism from community residents, criminologists and reformers from all sides of the political spectrum.

John Koufos, the national director of re-entry initiatives for the Koch family-funded Right on Crime, who was in Jackson recently to urge conservatives to support prison reform and re-entry, slammed the idea of ejecting offenders to another state.

“Many times … you’ve got people locked up all over the country. How are you supposed to re-integrate these folks back into the community when they’re in Kansas?” said Koufos, a former felon in New Jersey, in a speech at Jackson’s Old Capitol Inn.

Phillip Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said there were risks involved in removing people from their social supports.

“The people making decisions about removing folks, shunning folks, and excommunicating them from their homes are often not the same people who are in community with those committing crimes,” said Goff in a phone interview.

“That’s a fundamental flaw with the way that we handle the criminal-legal system right now.”

The system tends to be comprised of the poorest, most vulnerable, poorly educated, least advantaged and least connected to opportunities, and those prosecuting them do not tend to be of that demographic, he added.

Sending Firearms Offenders into ‘Exile”

Every single case Hurst is pursuing under Project EJECT involves illegal use or possession of firearms in some way under an initiative U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has resuscitated from the years before Barack Obama became president.

Many begin as cases that would normally put them under state jurisdiction, even for acts committed with guns. But Hurst takes the cases when they can be shown to involve interstate commerce.

In example, three individuals charged with armed robbery used a stolen Grand Am car for their getaway. But the fact that the Grand Am had been transported, shipped and received through interstate commerce made them candidates for Project EJECT.

Similarly, two individuals who allegedly held up a store in October 2017 came under Hurst’s scrutiny because their offense involved a plan to steal a getaway car manufactured outside the state.

“Carjacking is a federal crime because the car was manufactured in interstate commerce,” Hurst said in his office in February.

Hurst’s goal to “eject” violent criminals into federal court and then prisons outside the state is much like Project 
Exile in Richmond, Va., in the 1990s, which sent felons into “exile” for firearm violations.

The FBI’s Freeze, who joined Hurst at his December press conference, in fact, worked for the agency in Richmond at the time, back when James Comey was the U.S. attorney leading the program there. Freeze started pushing a version of Exile in Mississippi soon after he arrived in late 2016.

“Project Exile was founded and based on the concept that if you’re a convicted felon, caught in commission of a crime, with a weapon, there’s a five-year automatic sentence to federal prison,” Freeze told WDAM in Hattiesburg in April 2017.

Under the program, special agents from both federal and state agencies join local law enforcement to identify crimes Hurst can prosecute. A task force determines if there is enough evidence to prosecute suspects in the federal system.

Authorities will lock suspects up immediately in detention without bond, and law enforcement will not cut a deal so the suspect could be out in a few months. Once convicted, the theory goes, the felon would spend time without parole in the federal system “far, far away from Mississippi so that they cannot continue their criminal activity behind bars,” Hurst said in December.

The federal system no longer offers parole.

The idea is that the criminals would be away from their criminal networks and, thus, be likely to commit less crime.

Hurst acknowledged that they would also be removed from their families and existing support networks, while in prisons known for rough gang activity.

Nevertheless, Project EJECT won early praise from local police. Then-Jackson Police Chief Lee Vance, said at Hurst’s press conference that his “greatest wish” for the strategy is that a young man in Jackson rethinks a life of crime and will rethink his actions after watching others go to federal prison “for a long time, perhaps thousands of miles away from here.”

But some local critics have their doubts. One called it a “sinister law-and-order initiative aimed at criminalizing, victimizing and ethnically cleansing poor black people from Jackson while using violence and crime reduction as a way to cover its nefarious intent.”

The critics say they are also angered by the silence from Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba, who has offered few public statements on Project EJECT.

Calandra Davis

Jacksonian Calandra Davis expressed her dissatisfaction with Project Eject in Jackson over the last year at a city council meeting on February 27, 2018. Photo by Stephen Wilson.

Meanwhile, citizens are forcing a public conversation about Project EJECT.

“(Since) police in the City have implemented the Project EJECT program…there have been at least seven officer-involved shootings,” Calandra Davis said at a Jackson City Council meeting on Feb. 27.

“And to realize that this program and these shootings affect African-Americans disproportionately should raise concern for all of us….”

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has since put some distance between the program and city government.

“Project EJECT is (not) and has never been an initiative of the City,” Lumumba said at the council meeting. “… This administration has never said it is in favor of Project EJECT.”

Chokwe Lumbumba

Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba has both distanced himself and the City from Project EJECT and criticized it. Photo by Stephen Wilson

But he added: “I will say that some of the comments that were made during the (Hurst) press conference where it talked about people not getting bonds and everything else was inappropriate.”

Hurst insisted in an interview with the Jackson Free Press that his initial statement had been “misconstrued.”

“We are only a part of the judicial process, and our part will be to move for detention,” he said.

He pushed back on the suggestion that his promises meant violating people’s rights to bond; prosecutors will not suggest bond, he said.

“We’re moving for detention, and the judge makes a decision based upon the facts.”

He argued that the program was really part of the federal government’s “reboot” of  Project Safe Neighborhoods, a pre-Obama-era program that Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was re-invigorating, according to an October, 2017 statement, to “reduce the rising tide of violent crime in America.” He announced that he was allocating 40 new prosecutors to approximately 20 United States Attorney’s Offices to focus on violent crime reduction.

The George W. Bush-era initiative, which had cost the government about $2 billion since its inception in 2001, was highly controversial, and drew charges of racial bias.

But former U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Davis said Project EJECT is not precisely the same as the Jackson Violent Crime Initiative launched by his office in 2015.

Davis said in an interview that his program did not specifically threaten to send convicted criminals far away from Mississippi.

“Our issue was more so that violent people need to be prosecuted, the law needs to be enforced, and once they’re sentenced, they will be sent to a prison,” he said. “More than likely, that would be at a different location other than a local area.”

Some of those convicted were imprisoned in state. Others went to Arkansas, West Virginia, Florida or Georgia, but Davis made clear he did not set out to have people who commit violent crimes sent far away like Hurst; that is where they landed.

Ceasefire Fires Back

What rankles many observers is Hurst’s insistence that the program is a natural continuation of violence intervention programs like Richmond’s Project Exile or Operation Ceasefire in Boston.

“On the prosecution side, we’re not reinventing the wheel,” he explained. “We’re taking a lot of what has been done in other cities.”

But David Kennedy, the violence expert who helped design Operation Ceasefire—which launched as the Boston Gun Project in 1996—did not mince words when asked about Project EJECT and its earlier models in Richmond, Va., Rochester, N.Y., and other cities in the U.S.

Kennedy calls Sessions’ crime strategies “evidence-free”, despite violence statistics its proponents cite to prove otherwise. Not to mention, he said, strategies like EJECT and Exile have little to do with his Ceasefire approach, which is often referred to as the “Kennedy model” of violence deterrence.

“One of the innumerable mistakes is to say that Project Safe Neighborhood was built on Kennedy’s work,” Kennedy said in his office at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York where he is a professor.

“… That’s not right. It was in a small way based on my stuff. … We produced the first research that really showed there was such a thing as illicit markets in firearms.”

But the approach that became Project Exile under U.S. Attorney James Comey in Richmond ignored vital aspects of his team’s work to decrease group violence, Kennedy said, calling his work “a partnership approach focused on groups.”

David Kennedy

David Kennedy

“The other (approach) was Exile, which actually has its roots in opposition to my work,” Kennedy added.

Unlike Operation Ceasefire, Project Safe Neighborhoods declined to focus on how violent people get firearms, whether legally or illegally. The Exile approach, which was also endorsed by the National Rifle Association, puts the prosecutorial onus on the street-level shooters with little attention to where the supply of weapons came from or how to stop it. That led to charges of racial disparities, and contributed to increased distrust between police and communities of color, Kennedy said.

The Operation Ceasefire approach, which Kennedy’s team now brings to cities through the National Network for Safe Communities, is about prior engagement with those believed likely to commit gun violence, offering them help and services, and also threatening them with arrest on the state or federal levels if they or their associates commit violence. It is also about identifying illicit markets for weapons. And those who traffick the weapons aren’t usually the young black people who get caught up in federal Exile-type enforcement.

Initially, the NRA liked his approach, Kennedy said, but redirected its support away from a program that identified illicit markets to supporting the street-level federal arrests the Bush administration adopted.

Those arrests sent a disparate number of people of color to a gang-packed prison thousands of miles away for additional years, while not bothering to also focus on how they got the guns in the first place. Kennedy also said the federal prosecutions were brought unevenly, deepening distrust in communities toward law enforcement.

In his office, Hurst backed away from Ceasefire when asked if his alliance was also including the services and prevention side of the strategy, as Kennedy’s approach requires.

“It’s really not something, that aspect of Ceasefire, we have not really considered. (EJECT is) really going to be more in line with Exile. It’s almost Exile Plus in the sense of Exile was very strong. But I don’t know how much of the prevention and, yeah, re-entry they did, but it’s hard to argue with their numbers during the time.”

Kennedy does argue with the numbers of Richmond’s Exile and all its clones. Violent gun crime did fall dramatically in Richmond then, but it did not in other cities that emulated the strategy, raising his suspicion that more was going on, he said.

“The reason we know Exile doesn’t work is … because there’s a small body of really good formal evaluations … that say it doesn’t work,” Kennedy said. “I’m not aware of any place where (Exile) was associated with violent crime reduction.”

“What else was going in Richmond at the time? Was there something else that accounted for the reduction?” he added.

Jackson ostensibly tried an Operation Ceasefire approach at one time called “MACE” supposedly modeled on Baton Rouge’s BRAVE strategy, but a Jackson Free Press investigation found that local law enforcement just left out the services and outreach components and used the resources for massive enforcement, which violates the principles of Ceasefire.

Juan Cloy, a former Jackson police officer who was assigned to the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, is the Mississippi project director of Fight Crime, a nonprofit to help prevent youth crime.

In a perfect world, Cloy said, no one would need to go to prison. He wants to approach the justice system with the kind of equilibrium David Kennedy talks about—balancing the stick of arrest with compassion and programs that preempt people from entering the system, especially kids.

“So what we’re trying to do is keep young people from even being introduced into the federal system or into the local or state system…,” Cloy said.

“That way we don’t have to worry about any acronyms at all, right?”

Gregory Davis

Former U.S. Attorney Gregory Davis said Project EJECT differs somewhat from his violent-crime initiative. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Greg Davis agrees. While in office, the former U.S. attorney had an initiative called LEAD: Mississippi’s Legal Enrichment and Decision Making Program. Through it, he spoke to students around the state about staying on the right path—but still focusing on what would happen if they did not.

“One of my primary goals as a prosecutor is to prevent crimes from happening in the first place,” Davis told a group of students at N.R. Burger Middle School in Hattiesburg in October 2014.

“Educating students about the social and legal consequences of their decisions is essential to reducing negative behavior and making our communities safe,” he added.

Does “Tough Love” Work? 

When Hurst announced Project EJECT, he grinned as he drew connections between his initiative and basketball—particularly what happens when you commit a foul against another player.

“Goodness knows, I had my fair share of fouls,” Hurst said in December. “But, if you intentionally, flagrantly violate the rules, you will be ejected. That’s the consequence. What we’re announcing today with Project EJECT are consequences, but also hope.”

Hurst added that even if you get ejected from a basketball game, you don’t have to leave the sport for life. Rather, you can come back the next game and abide by the rules. He sees the same thing happening for people sentenced far from home under Project EJECT.

“Come back after you serve your sentence, be rehabilitated, abide by our rules, and we will welcome you back with open arms in our community,” Hurst said.

Hurst maintains that the threat of being shipped away can have a “deterrent effect.”

“I know that’s tough love, but it’s combined with the fact that if you want to come back and follow along, we really will help you re-enter society. It can’t just be tough love; it’s got to be that (promise of help).”

The non-law enforcement piece of Project EJECT involves the faith-based community, nonprofits, neighborhood associations and businesses, Hurst said.

In fact, local stakeholders represent the “T” in EJECT—together. Hurst wants business owners to give people a second chance once they have served their time and returned.

He does talk about getting to the root cause of crime through prevention, education, rehabilitation, communication and collaboration, but it is not built into Project EJECT with federal resources and strategies behind it. Hurst made his limitations clear, and leaned on the community behind him instead to achieve better communities.

“We don’t have all the answers, guys,” Hurst said in December. “Project EJECT is fluid, flexible for a reason so we can adapt to the changes and circumstances, and frankly rely upon the expertise of these men and women standing behind me.”

However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been less clear—quiet even—on re-entry, especially when compared to his predecessors. In his October 2017 Safe Neighborhoods memo, Sessions promised a “comprehensive approach” to public safety, including prevention, enforcement and re-entry efforts.

But he mentions re-entry only twice, and suggested supporting locally based groups’ re-entry efforts, as Hurst later echoed.

That is, the feds bring the big stick, and locals fund the prevention carrot.

Former attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch had zeroed in on re-entry efforts as well. Lynch, in particular, had a National Re-entry Week that Davis implemented in Jackson.

Davis stressed the importance of re-entry efforts for both the offender and the citizens in community.

“Re-entry is important because what happens is this,” he said before pausing and releasing a long sigh. “Once someone has paid their debt to society, they need to have an opportunity to re-enter society and be a productive member.

“If they re-enter society and they’re not prepared, unable to get a job, unable to have a driver’s license, unable to get health care needs, unable to get whatever services that they should have to allow them to be productive, then they run the risk of re-offending.”

Recidivism after spending time in violent prisons is an epidemic.

“If somebody re-offends, they have another victim …” Davis said. “And that’s one way you reduce crime, by not having people who get out re-offend.”

Phillip Goff of the Center for Policing Equity does not consider programs like EJECT, which hat remove people from their support networks, to be forward-looking. In fact, he argued, they make re-integration more problematic.

“What are the chances of when that person gets out, their lives can be transformed?” Goff said.

“Who among us … can be removed from social networks and become better for it? Any policy that removes someone from their social support is not a policy that is aimed at making them more likely to succeed when they re-enter….”

This is a condensed and edited version of a story published earlier in the Jackson Free Press. The complete story is available here. Donna Ladd, founder and editor of the Free Press, is a 2018 John Jay/Quattrone Justice Reporting Fellow. The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law School assisted with research. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Sex Workers Fight Efforts to Link Prostitution with Trafficking

As the campaign against sex trafficking emerges as a $47 million cottage industry, it has also spurred a “moral panic” that sex workers say has made them increasingly vulnerable to police abuse, and turns them into targets for those with religious or moral objections to prostitution.

At the height of national outrage over what government officials and activists call a human trafficking “epidemic,” sex workers are challenging what they say are misleading and harmful efforts to link prostitution to sex trafficking.

“People have used this moral panic, this idea that there is a trafficking epidemic, to create so much funding and so much policy that now that they’re being pressured to show the evidence—to show the sex trafficking arrests,” said Tara Burns, researcher and founding member of the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of former and current Alaska sex workers allied with sex trafficking victims.

“That’s where we see police arresting [prostitutes] for sex trafficking themselves, just so they can get those sex trafficking numbers up, and match the moral panic they’ve created.”

CUSP is lobbying for the passage of companion bills (HB 112/SB 73) in the Alaska Senate and House which would expand sexual assault laws to explicitly prohibit law enforcement from sexual contact with trafficking or domestic violence victims—as part of its continuing campaign to protect sex workers from laws that make them “vulnerable to violence and exploitation.”

In California, another group is challenging a state law that criminalizes prostitution, and asking a federal court to allow for a closer examination of studies that link consensual sex work to sex trafficking.

In January, a three-judge panel in the 9th circuit dismissed a suit by the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP) to declare unconstitutional state laws that make prostitution a crime. The panel sided with 13 state and national organizations that wrote in to oppose ESPLERP, arguing that prostitution needs to remain criminalized in order to combat the “attendant evils” of violence against women, drug abuse—and above all, sex-trafficking.

ESPLERP filed for a rehearing before the full 9th circuit on January 31, wanting the court to subject the studies it cited to a higher standard of review. But in an era when pornography has been declared a “public health crisis” linked to modern-day slavery, researchers who do not openly condemn prostitution are fighting an uphill battle—and sex workers themselves find it hard to be heard over the din of victims’ advocates who would speak for them.

9th circuit

ESPLERP members and their legal team in court on Oct 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Maxine Doogan

Maxine Doogan, founder of ESPLERP, says that denying sex workers equal protection under the law has led directly to abuse by police and other authorities, and that she and other people in the industry cannot report actual cases of forced trafficking without fearing arrest themselves.

“There are many people, many women, that I know who are prostitutes, who have been caught up in these prostitution sting operations; and have been sexually assaulted by the police, and raped,” she said in an interview with The Crime Report.

“Our activity is illegal. and so that just gives license for anybody to do anything to us that they want at any time, and get away with it.”

In the document submitted to the California court, opposition groups argued that “prostitution is sexual coercion, and closely related to sex trafficking,” and that “decriminalization of prostitution will legitimize sex trafficking.”

The authors of the opposition brief cited numerous “authorities” for their argument, identifying in particular eight publications by Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and anti-pornography activist well known for her view that sex work is “a particularly lethal form of male violence against women,” and an expression of “male hatred of the female body.”

“To the extent that any woman is assumed to have freely chosen prostitution, then it follows that enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature,” Farley wrote in a 2000 article for Women & Criminal Justice.

But according to independent scholars in the field, the majority of the publications cited in the opposition brief have not only been debunked, but also discredited in the Canadian Supreme Court during cross-examination. The court subsequently struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, finding them unconstitutional because of the negative impact they had on the safety and lives of sex workers.

Doogan notes that victim advocates are “not challenging the men who really have control over our world.”

She added: “They want to dismiss the sexual violence that we’re talking about that goes on with police.”

Doogan and other sex-worker advocates argue that the majority of people being rounded up and arrested during anti-sex-trafficking sweeps such as Operation Cross Country are not slaves held in bondage, but women working together, or as independent prostitutes– a claim supported by investigative journalists following this arrest data.

CUSP’s Terra Burns, who has analyzed thousands of charging documents from several states over the past five years, said that the most serious cases of child sex trafficking “are for the most part not cases that are being found in prostitution stings, [but] cases that are being found because somebody came forward and made a report.”

And in jurisdictions that aren’t aggressively charging people for prostitution, more sex workers are coming to police with tips, she added.

Burns, who herself was sex trafficked as a child, has lobbied extensively for legislative amendments in Alaska. She helped push through bills at the state and county level to allow immunity for sex workers reporting a crime, and hopes Alaska legislators will place priority on the proposed measure to make it illegal for police to sexually penetrate someone they were investigating.

“When an officer coerces you into having sex with him under the threat of arrest, or another kind of threat, that is an act of violence,” Burns said.

Police don’t need to have sex with someone in order to charge them with prostitution, but it happens. She describes one charging document where a police officer paid for a hand job at a massage parlor. “They could have arrested her right there, but instead he waited and got a hand job. and then he put her in handcuffs. And when that happens, it’s really traumatic.”

alaska legislature

Doogan (left) and Burns, introducing their first bills. Photo courtesy of Terra Burns

Other charging documents, published on CUSP’s website, describe police having multiple sex acts with women before arresting them.

The Alaska Department of Law as well as the Anchorage police continue to oppose the no-sexual-contact bill, and it has stalled for almost a year.

See also: ‘Invisible No More:’ The Other Women #MeToo Should Defend

In addition to government task forces, the anti-trafficking movement has also created a $47 million cottage industry of victim advocacy.

Significantly, in order to receive funding, organizations are still being asked to sign a Bush-era anti-prostitution pledge (also known as the “global gag rule”), even though it was ruled unconstitutional in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.

The same goes for researchers, according to George Washington University sociologist Ronald Weitzer, who has studied the sex industry and human trafficking for over three decades, and who served as an expert witness in the case before Canada’s Supreme Court. Before the gag rule was overturned, he was asked to sign the pledge in order to conduct an academic literature review for the National Institute of Justice.

“It’s shocking that even something as mundane as a literature review in this area becomes politicized,” he told The Crime Report.

More recent examples include University of Nevada researcher Barbara Brent, who was part of a 2014 task force developing a trafficking education program for first responders in Nevada.

In an email to The Crime Report, she wrote: “Participants, including Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who receive federal trafficking funds, indicated that I could not include sex worker rights organizations on the team to develop programs because that violated their grant agreement. The task force eventually fizzled out, and I don’t know what happened to those efforts.”

Last year, the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force broke ties with its grants manager, Kate D’Amato, for apparently supporting decriminalization during a public event. The Manchester Police Department said D’Amato’s opinions violated a federal grant, though it is unclear whether that claim was ever challenged.

“What it means is often you’ll get religious or evangelical organizations, both in the US and internationally, to get funding for anti-trafficking work but have very little expertise in the area,” said Weitzer.

“And this was a major criticism of the bush administration funding for many of these anti-trafficking organizations during that period.”

For example: Priceless Alaska, a Christian anti- trafficking organization that works closely with law enforcement, engages a team of volunteer mentors to work with trafficking victims. By way of preparation, mentors receive a three-day training. According to its website, the training “focuses on the mentor’s personal spiritual development first and sex trafficking-specific training second.”

Among the organizations that signed on to the ESPLERP opposition brief was Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the US that provides services to homeless and runaway youth. Last year, Covenant House worked with Loyola University to produce a multi-city report on forced labor and sex trafficking. The report claims that one in every 5 homeless youth are victims of human trafficking.

In Anchorage, that number was even higher: “Study: 1 in 4 homeless youths in Anchorage victims of human trafficking,” the local headline read.

But Burns, who has been collecting state and county arrest records for over five years, says that the data don’t add up, and that the report is intentionally misleading.

“Nobody’s been charged with trafficking a minor in Alaska since 2008,” she told The Crime Report.

In 2014, following the national trend, Alaska created the Special Crimes Investigation Unit, which is devoted to finding and rescuing juveniles who are being trafficked for commercial sex.

“They’ve existed with that mission for four years now,” said Burns, “and have yet to charge anybody with trafficking a minor.”

The problem with the Loyola report, according to Burns, is the way it switches between various definitions of a sex trafficking victim; from youth that are not involved in the commercial sex industry at all, “youths that are underage and just trading sex for survival means,” and youths who are being coerced or held in bondage and commercially trafficked.

“If [Loyola researchers] had talked to a youth who actively had a violent pimp, they would have had to report that to police and the police would have gone in— because they’ve been looking to charge somebody with trafficking a minor, obviously, to support all this rhetoric. We would see some charges if it were actually going on in that way,” Burns said.

But when “you’re not being honest about what you’re actually talking about, and then you’re turning around and saying ‘oh these kids are being kidnapped by pimps and forced into prostitution’— then the policy that ends up being created is not going to serve those actually kids that really exist–that are out there having survival sex right now.”

Fundamentally, Burns believes that this study—and others like it—are compromised by the “religious agenda” underlying the moral campaign.

“Covenant House and Loyola University are both religious organizations who have a religious agenda to prevent other people from having sex that they disapprove of,” she said.

What Burns has found by looking at thousands of charging documents is that the majority of people arrested in “sex trafficking” stings are women working together as prostitutes, or with a driver—both things that increase safety in the sex industry, she says.

Just three people were charged with sex trafficking in the first two years of Alaska’s new sex-trafficking law. One was a dancer charged with sex trafficking herself, according records Burns obtained.

Another was Amber Batts, the owner of the online escort service Sensual Alaska. Prosecutors were unable to charge her with force, fraud, or coercion, since people were working for the service of their own free will– but they still convicted her on charges of 2nd degree sex trafficking. She was sentenced to five years in prison.

“When you think of sex trafficking, you think of people that are held against their will and made to do things that they don’t want to do,” Batts’ sister, Tiana Escalante, told The Crime Report.

Escalante described being shocked to learn that a woman can be charged with sex trafficking in Alaska for a consensual act—even when she is working independently.

“I think it’s kind of outrageous. It’s her body, her right to choose.”

Meanwhile, despite the funding for sex trafficking “rescue” operations, Burns says that as a first responder she has been unable to get law enforcement to investigate two recent cases where victims were held against their will and sold for sex. In the first case, she said the FBI told her there was not enough evidence.

“I’ve been involved in or around criminal investigations for quite a bit,” she said. “There was so much evidence, there were text messages.”

In the second case, she said, despite having an admission from a violent pimp on social media, “the FBI told me they didn’t have time.”

A year ago, Burns helped one victim who was violently trafficked make a report to the FBI, and managed to get her money from the state Victims of Violent Crimes Compensation Fund.

“But the people from the violent crime compensation board actually called me up and let me know, ‘you won’t be able to receive this money on her behalf because we can’t give money to organizations that don’t oppose prostitution,’” she said.

Describing people who have illegal sex as being incapable of making a choice, or too corrupted to understand their own victimhood, isn’t a new strategy.

“It’s very similar if you look at the history of the laws against gay sex and the stigma around gay people… you look back and remember [people said] ‘well, there’s only gay because they were abused as children. And so the gay people are going to go out and they’re going to rape our children,’” Burns said.

“That’s the same kind of stigma that we see around the sex work. Well, prostitutes are all either victims, or they started out as victims and now they’re going to go and victimize somebody else.

“Imagine if you saw the same kind of rhetoric around domestic violence victims. Saying that domestic violence victims need to be arrested because they’re too morally damaged to know what’s good for them.”

This is precisely what Doogan and her cohort are trying to face down in court. As a sex worker and founder of ESPLERP, she insists that she is not a victim.

“If you were a victim advocate, I wouldn’t even bother talking to you,” she told The Crime Report. She calls them the “Anti’s.” “I think that they’re extremely tone deaf.”

“They’re treating us like the sex slaves that they think that we are. That’s the problem with their approach. I stopped talking to them because they don’t want to hear, and take responsibility for their own exploitative behavior.”

Members of the media are some of the worst perpetrators of this narrative violence, says Doogan, “renaming us, reclassifying us, stripping us of our agency.

“We have been barred from our own authority on these issues.”

Those interested in watching oral arguments in ESPLERP v. Gascon can view them here. Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments. 


Will Trump Try to Downgrade the COPS Office?

The independent Community Oriented Policing Services office, created in 1994 to assist local law enforcement, may be folded inside a DOJ division as part of a White House efficiency drive. In a letter supported by major police groups, 135 Congress members said the move could threaten communities “struggling” to pay for public safety.

President Donald Trump insists that he is a solid supporter of the nation’s police officers, but that backing may not count for much when it comes to the federal agency set up to aid local police departments.

When the White House next Monday proposes its federal spending plan for the year starting Oct. 1, Washington insiders who have talked to officials at the Justice Department anticipate that the plan will include ending the COPS Office’s more than two-decade-long run of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office as an independent agency in the Department of Justice (DOJ).

Instead, COPS would be placed within the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), and its grant-making authority would be given to an agency that long has awarded a wide variety of funds to state and local governments, the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

It’s possible that the White House Office of Management and Budget also will seek to end the independence of another DOJ agency, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW). Such a move is less likely because the agency was created by law and would require congressional action to change. It also would provoke anger from women’s advocates.

Although the COPS program was created in a major federal anticrime law in 1994 after President Bill Clinton campaigned on a promise to fund 100,000 community police officers nationwide, the separate agency that gives out the funds was not authorized separately by Congress.

In anticipation of a White House move to downgrade the office, 135 members of Congress this week sent a letter to the president declaring that “it is imperative the COPS Office remains an independent agency within the DOJ so that it may continue to support community policing efforts that build trust and mutual respect between law enforcement officers and communities.”

The letter was spearheaded by Representatives Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-NJ) and Dave Reichert (R-WA), co-chairs of the House Law Enforcement Caucus, and it includes signers from both parties.

The lawmakers cited the Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring (COPS Hiring) Program, which it said “provides struggling communities with necessary funding to address their personnel needs to protect their citizens.” The program says it has helped cities hire 130,000 officers since 1994.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the budget proposal before it is issued next week.

However, DOJ is expected to contend that giving another agency the responsibility for giving out policing grants would help government efficiency by consolidating federal anticrime grants in one agency.

In 2013, the Government Accountability Office reported that “more than 200 [DOJ] grant programs overlapped across 10 key justice areas, and that this overlap contributed to the risk of unnecessarily duplicative grant awards for the same or similar purposes.”

Last June, the Heritage Foundation, whose recommendations the Trump administration has followed on many spending issues, issued a report saying that “Attorney General Jeff Sessions should consolidate COPS grants into the OJP, thus reducing administrative costs.”

The report was written by David Muhlhausen, then a Heritage staff member and now the Trump administration appointee to head the National Institute of Justice, DOJ’s main research agency.

Muhlhausen also wrote for Heritage that the COPS program has “failed at reducing crime,” and added that, “State and local officials, not the federal government, are responsible for funding the staffing levels of local police departments. By paying for the salaries of police officers, COPS funds the routine, day-to-day functions of police and fire departments.”

The new Trump budget is not expected to seek the elimination of the COPS program, but it may propose major budget cuts, as the White House has done for its own Office of National Drug Control Policy, the so-called drug czar. COPS currently has an annual budget of $218 million, and pending Congressional appropriations bills could increase it slightly.

The new congressional letter asks the White House for “robust funding” of the COPS office, which it credits with overseeing implementation of the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National Blue Alert Act that establishes a nationwide Blue Alert communications system to help disseminate information on the serious injury or death of a law enforcement officer in the line of duty, an officer who is missing in connection with the officer’s official duties, or an imminent and credible threat that someone intends to cause the serious injury or death of a law enforcement officer.

The lawmakers’ letter to Trump was supported by four major organizations, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the National Sheriffs Association, the Major County Sheriffs’ Association, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

FOP involvement could be significant, because the group was a major backer of Trump’s election. Last summer in Nashville, Attorney General Sessions gave the keynote address to the FOP annual convention, where he announced that Trump was reversing an Obama administration order that restricted police agencies’ access to surplus military equipment, including grenade launchers, bullet-proof vests, riot shields and firearms.

The White House is expected to counter criticism of its handling of the COPS Office by appointing a well known former police official to head it.

Two sources told The Crime Report they had been told that the Justice Department was considering Phil Keith, who served for more than 16 years as police chief of Knoxville, Tn., until 2004, to head the agency. He would succeed Ronald Davis, a former police chief in East Palo Alto, Ca., who ran COPS under President Obama.

DOJ already has significantly reduced the COPS Office’s authority by scaling back a “collaborative reform” program in which police departments could voluntarily work with COPS to review their practices on some controversial issues such as officers’ use of force.

“Changes to this program will fulfill my commitment to respect local control and accountability, while still delivering important tailored resources to local law enforcement to fight violent crime,” Sessions said last September. “This is a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”

Putting the COPS office within the Office of Justice Programs would reduce its independence and visibility because its director would report to an Assistant Attorney General.

As an independent agency, it now reports to the number three official in the entire Justice Department, the Associate Attorney General, giving it much more access to the main Justice Department.

Law enforcement organizations contend that this move would reduce the prominence of the COPS Office that it has enjoyed for 24 years under three presidents. Even though the agency remained intact during the George W. Bush administration, many Republicans have not fully supported it because it was created by a Democratic president.

This includes, perhaps crucially, Mick Mulvaney, the former congressman from South Carolina who now heads Trump’s budget office.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


Big-City Crime Will Fall This Year, Brennan Center Projects

The Brennan Center for Justice disputes a Trump administration theme of a crime wave, estimating that crime in the nation’s largest cities will drop this year. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, using apparently dated FBI figures, said on Monday that violent crime is up.

The overall crime rate in 28 of the 30 largest U.S. cities fell about 2.7 percent this year, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimated on Wednesday. The center said violent crime also dropped, but only by 1.1 percent.

Assuming that the trend holds, violent crime would be near the bottom of a 30-year downward trend. This year is expected to end with the second-lowest rates of crime and violent crime since 1990, the center said.

Disputing a theme of the Trump administration, the Brennan Center contended that its “findings directly undercut any claim that the nation is experiencing a crime wave.”

Looking at murders in the big cities, the total rate dropped 5.6 percent, led by declines in Chicago and Detroit, the center said.

Murders in Chicago went up sharply in both 2015 and 2016, but the center projected the rate to drop 11.9 percent this year. Still, that is 62.4 percent above 2014.

The center speculated that the national increases of the last two years, led by Chicago, may have been “short-term fluctuations in a longer-term downward trend.”

The murder rate in Detroit was projected to fall about 9.8 percent.

New York City’s rate also will decline, to 3.3 murders per 100,000 population.

Murders in some cities will increase, including Charlotte, a rate increase of 54.6 percent, and Baltimore, 11.3 percent.

Among the 30 largest cities, violent-crime data were not available from Phoenix and Oklahoma City.

Also, the center did not include the 58 deaths in the Las Vegas concert shooting, saying that authorities classified them as terrorism. Murders in Las Vegas, not counting the concert massacre, were projected to drop from 168 to 143 this year.

The authors made year-end projections based on partial year data for this report. They explained that because of the seasonal nature of crime, it would not be appropriate, for example, to double the totals from the first six months of the year to arrive at an annual figure.

Instead, the Brennan Center said it makes projections by incorporating month-to-month trends from previous years to make annual estimates “as accurate as possible.”

President Trump ran for office on a “tough on crime” platform that has emphasized a focus on places where crime totals are up.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking in Milwaukee on Monday, said that the long-term trend of declining crime in the last two decades “has reversed” in the last two years.

Sessions said, “The violent crime rate is up by nearly seven percent. Robberies are up. Assaults are up nearly 10 percent. Rape is up by nearly 11 percent. Murder is up by more than 20 percent.”

Sessions did not specify his source of data, but it apparently was the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which lags behind the Brennan Center’s analysis. The FBI issued its report for 2016 in late September.

It estimated 17,250 murders in the U.S. in 2016, an 8.6 percent rise from 2015.

The FBI said that violent crime totals rose 4.1 percent in 2016, while property crime fell 1.3 percent compared to 2015 figures.

The FBI’s report is based on data submitted voluntarily by local law enforcement agencies, which does not include the many crimes not reported to police. The FBI compilation included most U.S. cities, far more than the Brennan Center’s 28.

Data in the Brennan Center report also was also obtained directly from cities, but on a much more current basis.

This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.


U.S., Colombia, Mexico Agree To Cooperate on Drugs

Attorney General Jeff Sessions meets with his Colombian counterpart in Cartagena three months after President Trump threatened to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war against drugs unless Colombia reverses a rise in coca cultivation.

U.S. and Colombian officials vowed Thursday to redouble efforts against drug trafficking as the South American nation contends with a record surge in coca production that has tested the relationship between the two nations, the Associated Press reports. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with his Colombian counterpart, chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez, and a delegation from Mexico in the Caribbean city of Cartagena. The meeting came three months after President Trump threatened to decertify Colombia as a partner in the war against drugs unless Colombia reverses a rise in coca cultivation.

Cultivation of the plant used to make cocaine rose in 2016 to levels unseen in nearly two decades of U.S. eradication efforts, said a White House report. The prosecutors also discussed money laundering and human trafficking, two issues frequently intertwined with the illegal drug trade. Martinez said the three nations would “strengthen cooperation among each other to effectively battle this scourge.” Sessions said, “We’re gonna make progress.” Colombia is the U.S.’s staunchest ally in the region and one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. The U.S. has spent more than $10 billion in counter-narcotics work in Colombia over the course of nearly two decades. The amount of land devoted to coca cultivation had steadily declined but began rising again in 2014, says the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


Sessions Backs Stronger DEA Role in Combating Opioid Crisis

The Attorney General tells a news conference that “effective enforcement” should be a priority for new legislation. He also announced a new DEA Division for the Appalachian region, and the appointment of Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s top advisers, to oversee White House initiatives to combat opioid abuse. 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions says he is “dubious” of a 2016 law that effectively took away the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most potent weapons against distributors and manufacturers of prescription opioids, and that he would support new legislation to expand the agency’s arsenal, reports the Washington Post.

At a news conference Wednesday, Sessions said that the DEA faced more challenges than it would have “had the law not passed” and that he would support a new law “to make sure we’re fully able to carry out effective enforcement policies.” The remarks came after Sessions and acting DEA administrator Robert Patterson laid out steps they plan to take in an effort to stem the opioid crisis.

Sessions announced $12 million in grants and a new DEA division overseeing the Appalachian region to help law enforcement officials combat illicit drugs, especially prescription opioids, and said he has directed his U.S. attorneys to designate an opioid coordinator in their offices. DEA will establish its new division, the Louisville Field Division, on Jan. 1 to unify its drug trafficking investigations, officials said.

The division will include Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, will have about 90 special agents and 130 task-force officers, and focus on illicit drug trafficking in the Appalachian Mountains. Kellyanne Conway, one of President Trump’s top advisers, has been tasked with overseeing White House initiatives to combat opioid abuse. “The president has made this a White House priority. He’s asked her to coordinate and lead the effort from the White House,” Sessions said, calling Conway “exceedingly talented.”

Sessions’s announcement was the latest DOJ action regarding the increase in opioid-related overdose deaths. Earlier this month, the department announced a change in the way fentanyl is classified so that anyone who possesses, imports, distributes or manufactures a fentanyl-related substance can be criminally prosecuted.