On a swing through Minneapolis on Monday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions previewed a tougher approach to violent crime and illegal immigration from the Trump administration while vowing not to make law enforcement's job "more difficult than it already is."
In wide-ranging remarks to a national conference of prosecutors, Sessions drew on local examples to make his case for a renewed approach to violent crime, drawing several rounds of applause from an audience of more than 250 officials at the summer meeting of the National District Attorneys Association.
Sessions pointed to a six-year rise in violent crime in Minneapolis, citing local police, and a surge in gunfire reports compiled by St. Paul police.
"My best judgment is that this is not a blip; it's not an aberration,'' Sessions said. "Capitulating to this trend is not an option for America, [and] it's not an option for us."
Minneapolis police statistics do show a modest increase in some violent crimes, but overall show that Part I crimes — including homicide, rape and robbery — have fallen steadily and are down sharply from a decade ago.
Still, the attorney general painted a stark picture, where "violent crime seems to be rising again" nationwide with homicide rates up in 27 of the country's 35 largest cities, including Minneapolis.
A former U.S. attorney in Alabama, Sessions said he will order a "substantial increase" in federal gun prosecutions. "We've got a lot of people who want to pass more gun laws, but they are not as enthusiastic, it seems to me, about prosecuting the ones we got."
Sessions spoke at a lunch session where Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman formally assumed the presidency of the national prosecutors' group. Before Sessions spoke, Freeman took the stage and pledged to help diversify the ranks of the country's prosecutors, saying that in his office, 60 percent of the trial lawyers are women and 20 percent are people of color.
"Frankly, we need to make sure our members look like and reflect the citizens that we serve," Freeman said.
Sessions' speech, which mostly followed prepared remarks, was the only portion of the meeting open to the public. Campus sexual assault and sex trafficking are key themes of the three-day summit, which began Sunday. Although sex crimes against women are a focus of the summit, Sessions devoted all but the final moments of his speech to broadly outlining the Trump administration's tough-on-crime agenda.
Later Monday, he met with supervisors in the U.S. attorney's office in Minneapolis and then convened a "working lunch" with the heads of multiple local federal law enforcement agencies to discuss the types of cases charged in the area. A U.S. attorney's office spokeswoman declined to comment, saying it was "an internal meeting among leadership."
While Sessions vowed to "aggressively prosecute" law enforcement officers who violate citizens' civil rights, he also said the Justice Department will "take care to never demean or offer unwarranted criticism" of the "officers who protect us every day."
Sessions said he hopes to issue a new directive this week on increasing asset forfeiture, "especially for drug traffickers," and he encouraged increasing the sharing of proceeds among federal, state and local authorities.
He also addressed a controversial May memorandum to federal prosecutors, which called on them to pursue "the most serious readily provable offenses." The announcement quickly drew concerns that the new approach would swell prison populations and aggravate racial disparities.
But Sessions said the memo allows prosecutors to depart from the guidelines with the approval of a supervisor, who then must document the reasons. "The review will be conducted locally," Sessions said. "Use your best judgment. If we end up seeing that people abuse it, well, then we'll change it."
Sessions called "the lawlessness in our immigration system" another key issue and said Minnesota was one of five states where federal immigration authorities arrested a total of 86 foreign nationals over a recent three-day stretch.
"Our goal is not to reduce illegal immigration but to end illegal immigration," Sessions said.
Speaking to reporters afterward, Freeman said he welcomed the opportunity to hear from an attorney general with previous prosecutorial experience. But he added, "There was no question that I disagree about the suggestion of returning to days past" on marijuana and sentencing policies.
Freeman also challenged Sessions' bleak portrait of crime in the Twin Cities.
"Crime numbers can be played with in lots of different directions," Freeman said. "I don't get too concerned about the blips. What I get concerned about is a longer [trend]."
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755