Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr, of the DOJ Criminal Division said his agency would focus on gang activity in Houston, and highlighted $2 million in grants available to Harris County to “reduce gun crime and other serious violence.”
“We will employ 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 gripping this community,” Polite said.
Earlier this month, DOJ officials announced indictments 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 allotment included in federal legislation crafting new firearm restrictions and mental health spending approved by Congress this summer.
U.S. Attorney Jennifer Lowery of the Southern District of Texas said in addition to adding five new federal trial attorneys to prosecute violent gang members, the initiative would include working with both local police and community groups such as youth intervention non-profit Change Happens and the local YMCA.
“We will also work with programs designed to combat crime but also that support [the] community and victims during and after the violence,” said Lowery. “Examples are the second chance programs, reentry programs, preventing school violence, community policing and de-escalation training, as well as safeguarding communities and mentoring programs.”
Polite and Lowery also visited with community and faith leaders, as well as students at Yates, which is located in the Third Ward, listed as one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
Calling the new federal initiatives a “big deal,” Finner said Harris County was unlike any other in the nation due to the criminal case backlog. He also noted the city’s police department would be using the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) to link guns confiscated to crimes.
Finner and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner have come under fire for conducting gun buyback programs that promise “no questions asked,” and the county’s district attorney has warned that the programs may interfere with prosecuting crimes.
“A gun that’s in somebody’s house or just on the street somewhere, when they bring it into us, NIBIN, we run it and can trace back. But if you don’t have that gun, you don’t have anything,” Finner said. “So, we use that as an opportunity. But I’m going to leave it at that, and we will talk about it later.”
At a recent Houston City Council meeting, Finner reported that crime is down this year over last year, including a 1 percent decline in homicides. Homicides have risen county-wide by 65 percent since 2018, however, and earlier this week, Crime Stoppers of Houston staff said they could not continue a tradition of reading aloud every victim’s name at this year’s National Day of Remembrance event because the list had become too long.
Gonzalez noted crime had risen in other areas of the country, and dismissed the idea that the new federal assistance only replicated efforts already undertaken by the city and county’s recent crime 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 it very well in our individual agencies, but we want to make sure we aren’t missing anything.”
Last January, Gonzalez requested more than 1,000 additional personnel for his department, but that request was mostly rejected by the Harris County Commissioners Court except for several hundred new officers for the troubled jail system.
Lowery also noted that violent suspects arrested by federal authorities would not be released on bond.
Over the past four years, an increasing number of Harris County judges and magistrates have implemented lenient bond policies for violent criminals, even for suspects accused of Capital Murder.
Two defendants charged in the fatal shooting of Deputy Constable Omar Ursin last month were out on bond for murder and capital murder at the time, and a self-identified member of a street gang charged with capital murder was released on a $9,000 bond earlier this year.
Although he did not directly address bail bond practices, Finner said Thursday, “There is one place for violent individuals, and that is behind bars.”
According to a DOJ statement, the new initiatives for Harris County will be led by the Criminal Division’s Organized Crime and Gang Section in coordination with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas. It will also include investigative agents, analysts, and forensics experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.
The DOJ did not list the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency as a partner in the federal initiative.
After taking office three years ago, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez (D) announced that his department would opt out of 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 tapped Gonzalez to head ICE, but the U.S. Senate repeatedly delayed the nomination reportedly due to allegations surrounding a domestic violence incident. Gonzalez finally withdrew from consideration earlier this year.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.