RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Richmond to unveil plans to crack down on gun violence and drug abuse, as protesters gathered outside the speech venue to demand that he resign.
Sessions made his remarks Wednesday at the SunTrust Center downtown to an audience consisting almost entirely of federal, state and local law enforcement officers.
“[President] Trump issued a policy to administration to reduce crime, and that’s what I take as my marching order,” Sessions said after he was introduced by Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and acting attorney general until Sessions’ confirmation.
While acknowledged that crime had fallen to historic lows in recent decades, he then repeated the administration’s widely-debunked claim that the violent crime rate has more recently gotten out of control.
“I am disturbed to find violent crime is on the rise in the U.S., especially in cities,” the attorney general said. “This year murder rates in Richmond are at a high, from 44 to 62.”
Sessions’ expressed concern over the national crime rate flies in the face of a September 2016 FBI report pegged the U.S. murder rate in 2015 at 4.9 per 100,000 people — up slightly from the 2014 rate of 4.4 murders per 100,000 people, but dramatically lower than 2006, when the murder rate was 5.8 per 100,000 people and about the same as the rate in 2009 and 2010, when the murder rates were 5.0 per 100,000, and 4.8 per 100,000, respectively.
Further, the Pew Research Center said last month that violent crime has fallen sharply across the U.S. over the past quarter century, while property crime has also declined significantly.
But he was on firmer ground when it came to Richmond itself, where the number of homicides are the highest in more than a decade.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2016 was the deadliest year in the region since 2005, when there were 132 murders in and around the city. In 2016, 124 people were murdered — a 24 percent increase from 2015.
Sessions blamed the dramatic increase in murders locally on drugs, and particularly heroin, which is now not only more potent than in the past, but also cheaper and more widely available.
As the drug trade has increased, so too have the violent crimes associated with it.
But Sessions hastened to add that violence is the only cause of death associated with what he described as the “heroin and opiate epidemic” gripping the U.S.
“Overdose rates tripled from 2010-2014,” he said. Every three weeks we’re losing as many people as the 911 attacks,” he said.
Here, Sessions appeared to be understating the marked increase in opiate-overdose deaths.
According to a January report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Heroin-related overdose deaths have actually quadrupled since 2010.
The report went on to say that from 2014 to 2015, heroin overdose death rates increased by 20.6 percent, with nearly 13,000 people dying in 2015.
Sessions then turned his attention to the abuse of fentanyl, a synthetic opiod pain reliever that is said to be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
The attorney general said a major source of the plague is drug cartels who smuggle heroin and other opiates over the southern U.S. border.
“Mexican drug cartels are producing new, low-cost heroin,” Sessions said.
Sessions says he plans to battle drug use through “criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention,” but his emphasis was definitely more on enforcement as he went on to speak about stepped-up crackdowns on dealers and harsher sentences for those convicted of drug-related crimes.
Sessions also said he plans to expand the use of Project Exile, a program to reduce gun violence that FBI Director James Comey started in Richmond 20 years ago when he was the city’s federal prosecutor.
“We’ve seen a priority that’s slipped away from firearms on the federal level,” Sessions said.
“Firearms prosecutions have gone down. This downward trend is going to end,” he vowed.
“We need to take criminals with guns off the streets,” he added. “We need to put bad people behind bars.”
Sessions delivered his public remarks, which lasted for about 30 minutes, before heading into a closed meeting with law enforcement officials and crime victims.
Inside the building, a few yards from where that meeting was taking place, representatives of the Democratic Party of Virginia called for Sessions to resign for not telling the Senate Judiciary Committee about his meetings last year with the Russian ambassador.
Outside of the building, groups of protesters gathered despite frigid temperatures wielding signs that read “Sessions lied under oath” and “diversity is democracy.”