PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Just as racketeering and tax laws have put mobsters away for decades, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Monday that the government will use the same tools to take down the drug cartel MS-13.
Delivering remarks Monday morning to the International Association of Chiefs of Police at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Sessions formally designated the gang as a priority for the Department of Justice’s Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces.
“These task forces bring together a broad coalition of our federal prosecutors, DEA, FBI, ATF, ICE, HSI, the IRS, the Department of Labor Inspector General, the Postal Service Inspectors, the Secret Service, the Marshals Service, and the Coast Guard,” Sessions told the crowd. “And they all have one mission, to go after drug criminals and traffickers at the highest levels.”
Sessions mentioned civil-asset forfeiture, increased coordination between law departments and funding boosts as parts of the new efforts, all of which fall under the DOJ’s Project Safe Neighborhoods program.
“Not just our drug laws, but everything from RICO to our tax laws to our firearms laws,” Sessions continued. “Just like we took Al Capone off the streets with our tax laws, we will use whatever laws we have to get MS-13 off of our streets,” he said.
Emphasizing that a quarter of MS-13’s 40,000 members live in the United States, Sessions called for international coordination to limit the gang’s reach.
The attorney general credited similar cooperation with helping take down AlphaBay in July. A once-major online drug distributor, AlphaBay was responsible for countless synthetic opiod overdoses across the globe, Sessions said.
Ramped up forfeiture meanwhile carries its own set of problems, the American Civil Liberties Union warned.
“Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources,” the group said in a statement. “But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”
The Philadelphia Public Record reported in September that city prosecutors have been using forfeitures like these as a slush fund of sorts for years, spending between $2 million and $7 million a year on undisclosed expenses.
“There is no democratic check on how law enforcement uses forfeiture funds, and no oversight by any politically accountable body,” Molly Tack-Hooper of the Pennsylvania ACLU told Philadelphia Weekly on Friday. “The current law places very few restrictions on how they can use that money.”
In his speech Monday, Sessions emphasized the need for increased coordination between all levels of law enforcement.
“An arrest of a single drug courier in Columbus, Ohio, can lead to a national and international cartel take down,” he said. “A defendant with prescription drugs in New Hampshire can lead to a corrupt doctor or pharmacist in Miami. With the click of a mouse, a teenager can order fentanyl from China, causing the death of a 13-year-old in Utah.”
Also on Monday, Sessions announced the award of a $5.4 million federal grant for active-shooter response training. ALERRT, short for the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, will receive the funds through the Preparing for Active Shooter Situations (PASS) Training Program.
The grant is part of nearly $9 million in funding unveiled Monday by the COPS Office, short for Community Oriented Policing Services, of the Department of Justice, for distribution across the country.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police, the group whose conference in Philadelphia was the site of Sessions’ speech Monday, will receive more than $200,000 of the new grant money for its Institute for Community and Police Relations.
“The investment the department makes today … underscores the Trump administration’s commitment to support law enforcement,” Sessions said. “This investment will be put to good use: providing better training and safety for law enforcement officers and better relations with communities. That will benefit all of us.”
Sessions boasted that the crackdown on illegal guns he advanced this year has resulted in a 23 percent increase in the rate of criminals being charged with unlawful firearm possession.
Quoting statistics about the crime rate without context, Sessions also tied a purported rise in crime to a 6 percent decrease in the number of police officers per capita between 2007 and 2012.
While overall crime is down across the country, according to a report from the FBI last month, the Justice Department has focused on a small uptick in murders and violent crime to brandish Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric.
The overall crime numbers were driven down by historic lows in property crimes like burglary and theft, while the 1.24 million violent crimes reported last year are still well below the level of 1.42 million reported a decade ago, when the rate was 471 violent crimes for every 100,000 people in the country.
Comparison against two decades ago, when the violent crime rate was 611, makes the historic trend of decreased violent crime rates even more pronounced.
Criminal-justice experts also caution against seeing the uptick as part of a larger trend, since the crime increases appear confined to small parts of the country. Chicago, for example, accounted for 20 percent of the overall increase in murders last year, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Sessions also tied the crime rate to the number of federal prisoners decreasing by one-eighth in three years — taking a jab at President Barack Obama’s achievement of being the first administration in 36 years to do.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons attributed the significant drop in the federal prison population to a decline in the number of federal prosecutions and in the severity of sentences for drug-related crime in recent years.
Sessions said state and local law enforcement agencies can expect to see around $100 million in grants to hire more officers.
“But I want to be clear about something,” he said. “Our goal is not to fill up the courts or the prisons. Our goal is to reduce crime, just as President Trump directed us to do. Our goal is to make every community safer — especially the most vulnerable.”