VIOLENT REALITY: Federal push to curb gun violence goes after felons
“Gun Crime = Fed Time” read the billboard on West Roosevelt Road.
On nearby Asher Avenue, drivers traveling east saw another billboard from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
“Federal time means no parole — ever,” read the sign overlooking one of the city’s most violent neighborhoods.
The warnings reflected an ongoing push to punish repeat and violent offenders with federal prosecution for gun crimes, one effort in a wave of initiatives from authorities and the Department of Justice to reduce crime in the federal jurisdiction of eastern Arkansas.
“I think it’s a real chance to move the needle on crime in our community,” U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland said this spring of the federal prosecutions. “So many programs are symbolism over substance, and that’s not what this is about.”
Hiland’s office has reported an upswing in the number of indictments tied to Project Safe Neighborhoods gun cases, all of which involve the illegal possession of a firearm. Project Safe Neighborhoods is a Department of Justice program that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last fall he would reinvigorate.
Sessions visited Little Rock on Aug. 1 and referred to the ongoing efforts amid calls for legislative changes to categorize people who are charged as being felons in possession of firearms as violent offenders.
“We should not keep people in prison longer than necessary,” Sessions said. “But proven policies and clear and certain punishment do in fact make America safer.”
In fiscal 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice doled out more than $18 million to fund 93 Project Safe Neighborhoods programs. The Arkansas Eastern District got $137,441 and the Arkansas Western District received $104,414, according to the department’s website.
In 2017, the federal prosecutor’s office in Little Rock opened 106 cases involving felons in possession of firearms and indicted 62, according to its data. Through Friday, Hiland’s office had opened 221 of those cases, and 146 ended with indictments.
The Eastern District includes Pulaski County and stretches from Yell County in the west to Mississippi County in the east.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Givens said the overwhelming majority of the gun cases are tied to felons being in possession of firearms.
To handle the influx of cases, Hiland’s office has enlisted the help of additional attorneys. Ten attorneys from six central Arkansas counties and two state offices have been selected to become special assistant U.S. attorneys. The office is adding two more attorneys from northeastern counties, Givens reported.
Givens said via email that the highest number of gun-related prosecutions in 2017 was in July with 15 indictments. This year, the average is 18.25 per month.
Jegley was referring to the national attention Little Rock gained after the release of the 1994 HBO documentary Gang War: Bangin’ In Little Rock, which explored violence and gang culture in the city.
“And if it’s dark in Little Rock, it’s dark in Faulkner County, it’s dark in Saline County, it’s dark in Lonoke County, too. We are not defined by our county lines or by the river or anything else. We’re all in it together,” he said.
Authorities approached the gang violence of the 1990s in a multiagency effort similar to what’s happening with the U.S. attorney’s current initiative, Jegley said in a recent interview. Coordination between state and federal prosecutors, along with a focused effort from local and federal law enforcement, led to the downturn in gang violence, he said.
Jegley said he’s glad to see renewed communication between state and federal authorities.
“I think if we had kept the communication lines open and better, then we’d all be better,” he said.
Little Rock had a wave of gun violence in 2017 — including a mass shooting at a downtown nightclub that left 28 people injured, including 25 who had been shot — once again drawing national attention to gun violence in the city. A rivalry between two gangs precipitated that shooting, according to federal authorities.
Little Rock police data show that the number of nonfatal shooting victims more than doubled between 2014 and 2017. That figure is related to people shot in first-degree battery incidents.
Officials said they have seen a renewed energy from the federal prosecutor’s office in Little Rock under Hiland’s command.
Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner said the focus on repeat offenders is welcome.
“For the most part, the vast majority of individuals that own a gun do so legally, and they’re responsible gun owners,” he said. “You know our problem is the individuals that go out who are involved in gang activity or doing that in the furtherance of their drug operations. Those are the individuals that we need to be focusing on.”
Little Rock police Capt. Russell King, who oversee’s the agency’s Major Crimes Division, said the belief is that a limited number of people are responsible for the gun violence in Arkansas’ capital city. Getting federal gun convictions on the repeat offenders will take time, he said, but will eventually lead to lowered crime in the city.
Hiland says low-level offenders will not be the focus of the federal prosecution push.
“I do not believe that convicted felons who continue to sell drugs and illegally possess guns are low-level criminals. And, at the end of the day, the criminal histories of these people are going to bear that out,” he said.
According to Hiland, the initial focus will be in central Arkansas, but it will not be limited to that area. The U.S. attorney said he’s already had meetings in northeast Arkansas about the approach and will be meeting with community and civil leaders around the district.
“We know that people are tired of lip service, they want something done,” he said.
The push to increase the number of federal gun prosecutions is only one of several efforts by federal authorities to curb violent crime and support local law enforcement.
The Department of Justice announced earlier this year that the district would receive an additional federal prosecutor to concentrate on violent crime.
The office filled the position in June, Givens said.
Two cities in the district — Little Rock and West Memphis — are also part of the National Public Safety Partnership, a federal program established under Sessions that supports officers and prosecutors in fighting violent crime.
The program supports local law enforcement officials and prosecutors in investigating, prosecuting and deterring violent crime.
Givens said Little Rock and West Memphis will remain in the program until the beginning of September.
The two cities have also received Department of Justice grants this year.
Information for this article was contributed by Ginny Monk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.