Justice Dept. Braces for Summer of Violent Crime

The encounter was an unsettling reminder of the daunting challenges the Justice Department faces in the coming months.

The scene near the intersection of South St. and South 3rd Street after a shooting in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 4, 2022, where three people died. (Dakota Santiago/The New York Times)

Fourth of July Breaking news.

This article is from The New York Times, and we ask that you be safe and use precautions as the most violent holiday approaches.

The motorcade carrying Lisa Monaco, the No. 2 law enforcement official in the United States, maneuvered between potholes and people on Kensington Avenue when her driver braked for a man wandering into traffic with a hypodermic needle dangling from his arm.

It was late June, and Monaco was in the city to address a particularly savage surge in drug abuse and violent crime here, shuttling to meetings with federal prosecutors, state and local police officials, and community members aimed at combating an annual spike in summer violence ushered in by the Fourth of July weekend.

“People are living in an environment they shouldn’t have to endure,” she said a few days later, recalling the drive from downtown to meet with beat cops in Northeast Philadelphia. “You actually have to step over needles to take your kid to the bus stop.”

The encounter was an unsettling reminder of the daunting challenges the Justice Department faces in the coming months.

If Washington is focused on the criminal investigation into the efforts to keep President Donald Trump in office after his 2020 election loss, the department’s top leaders are equally concerned with the stubborn, post-pandemic rise in violent crime, and a growing sense that lawlessness is overtaking daily life in many big cities. Republicans have highlighted the issue, along with inflation, before the 2022 midterm elections, but Democrats, like Mayor Eric Adams of New York, are also embracing a law-and-order approach as their constituents demand action.

The timing of Monaco’s trip, with the heat setting in over the city, was noteworthy. The onset of warm weather typically signals an onslaught of violence in many parts of the country, with holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July proving deadly in recent years.

Last year, at least 233 people were killed and 618 others were injured in about 500 shootings over the Fourth of July weekend, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an academic consortium that compiles law enforcement data. 

That was an improvement from 2020, when 314 people were killed and 751 more were injured

Mass shootings like those in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, pop up with little public warning. But the seasonal rise in violence in cities is more predictable, and local departments spend months girding for the surge, experimenting with different approaches to limit the carnage.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is deploying additional patrols on the city’s West and South sides. In Milwaukee, police officials are using new acoustic technology to pinpoint gunshots to identify six areas to concentrate on over the holiday weekend. The police in Philadelphia — the site of a recent 70-bullet shootout that one resident likened to a scene from the Wild West — are working on similar plans.

Yet the federal government, for all its vast investigative powers, plays a supporting role when it comes to fighting street crime. The Justice Department prosecutes major drug and weapons trafficking cases, provides technical support on gun tracing and the analysis of other evidence, and distributes billions of dollars in grants to supplement the budgets of local departments that are mainly paid for by area taxpayers.

Over the past year, Attorney General Merrick Garland has announced a series of steps intended to bolster efforts to counter rising crime rates. It comes at a time when the administration as a whole is anxious about the dire political implications of the perception that it is letting the situation spiral out of control.

They include the creation of five “strike forces” that work with local law enforcement to disrupt firearms trafficking; a Drug Enforcement Administration initiative to combat drug-related violent crime and deal with overdose deaths in 34 cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Memphis, Tennessee; a $139 million initiative to hire 1,000 officers at understaffed local departments; and a rule that effectively bans the production and sale of homemade “ghost guns,” which are fueling gun violence on the West Coast.

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