Federal agencies to extend additional resources to Houston to combat violent crime wave

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U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) officials joined Houston Police Chief Troy Finner and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez at Yates High School on Thursday to announce new federal initiatives aimed at combating violent crime in the Houston area.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr, of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, said his agency would focus on gang activity in Houston, and pointed to $2 million in grants available to Harris County to “reduce gun crime and other serious violence”.

“We will use a data-driven approach to first identify and then prosecute the worst of the worst gangs and gang members who are disproportionately responsible for the violent crime in this community,” Polite said.

Earlier this month, DOJ officials indictments announced of 10 suspected members of the MS-13 street gang engaged in violent criminal activity in Texas and Maryland between 2015 and 2018.

The grant to Harris County stems from a $100 million allocation included in federal legislation establishing new gun restrictions and mental health spending approved by Congress this summer.

U.S. Attorney Jennifer Lowery of the Southern District of Texas said that in addition to adding five new federal prosecutors to prosecute violent gang members, the initiative would include working with local police and community groups such as the non-profit youth intervention. Change is happening and the local YMCA.

“We will also work with programs designed to fight crime but also support [the] community and victims during and after the violence,” Lowery said. “Examples are second chance programs, reintegration programs, school violence prevention, community policing and de-escalation training, as well as community safeguarding and mentorship programs.”

Polite and Lowery also visited community and religious leaders, as well as students at Yates, which is located in the Third Ward, ranked as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods.

Calling the new federal initiatives a “big deal,” Finner said Harris County is unlike any other in the country due to the backlog of criminal cases. He also noted that the city’s police department would use the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) to link confiscated weapons to crimes.

Finner and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner have come under fire for leading arms buy-back programs this “no questions asked” promise and the county the prosecutor warned that the programs can interfere with the prosecution of crimes.

“A gun that’s in someone’s house or just on the street somewhere, when they bring it to us, NIBIN, we point it and can trace it. But if you don’t have that gun, you have nothing,” Finner said. “So we are using this as an opportunity. But I’ll leave it at that, and we’ll talk about it later.

At a recent Houston City Council meeting, Finner said crime was down this year from last, including a 1% drop in homicides. However, homicides have risen 65% countywide since 2018, and earlier this week Crime Stoppers of Houston staff said they could not continue the tradition of reading each victim’s name aloud. at this year’s ceremony. national day of remembrance event because the list had become too long.

Gonzalez noted that crime has increased in other parts of the country and dismissed the idea that the new federal aid merely duplicates efforts already undertaken by the city and county. criminal initiatives.

Explaining that his department already had partnerships with federal law enforcement, Gonzalez said, “It’s about trying to connect the dots that connect the dots. Sometimes we do this very well in our individual branches, but we want to make sure we don’t miss anything.

Last January, Gonzalez requested more than 1,000 additional staff for his department, but that request was largely denied by the Harris County Commissioners Court, except for several hundred new officers for the corrections system. in trouble.

Lowery also noted that violent suspects arrested by federal authorities would not be released on bail.

Over the past four years, a growing number of Harris County judges and magistrates have implemented lenient bail policies for violent felons, even suspects charged with capital murder.

Two defendants charged in fatal shooting of Deputy Constable Omar Ursin last month were on bail for murder and capital murder at the time, and a self-identified street gang member charged with capital murder was released on a Bond of $9,000 earlier this year.

Although he didn’t directly address bail practices, Finner said Thursday, “There’s a place for violent individuals, and that’s behind bars.”

According to a DOJ statement, the new initiatives for Harris County will be led by the Organized Crime and Gangs Section of the Criminal Division in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. It will also include investigative officers, analysts and forensic experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and other law enforcement agencies. federal, state and local.

The DOJ did not list the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) as a partner in the federal initiative.

After taking office three years ago, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez (D) announced that his department would be withdrawing from the federal 287(G) program, under which sheriff’s deputies were trained to work with ICE to identify suspects with deportation orders.

Last year, President Biden hired Gonzalez to lead ICE, but the US Senate repeatedly delayed the nomination due to allegations of a domestic violence incident. Gonzalez finally withdrawn from review earlier this year.

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