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‘We Must Confront This Problem.’ Read Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Florida School Shooting

12 minute read

Jeff Sessions said that the Justice Department will make responding to school shootings a priority.

Speaking to the Major County Sheriffs’ Association Thursday, the attorney general said that the U.S. “must reverse these trends” and vowed to increase gun prosecutions.

“It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening, and we are once again, watching the images of our children— terrified— streaming from their school with their hands above their heads,” he said. “When parents, once again, go to sleep in fear that their kids will not be safe when they leave for their school bus in the morning. We must confront this problem.”

Sessions was speaking one day after a gunman killed at least 17 and injured 14 students at Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It was the 18th school shooting of this year.

The suspected shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, was taken into custody about an hour after fleeing school grounds.

Read Sessions’ full remarks as prepared for delivery.

Thank you, Sheriff Judd, for that kind introduction. I know, Sheriff, as a native Floridian, how painful today must be for you. It is for every American today.

It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening, and we are once again, watching the images of our children— terrified— streaming from their school with their hands above their heads.

When parents, once again, go to sleep in fear that their kids will not be safe when they leave for their school bus in the morning.

We must confront this problem. And I know each and every one of you in this room feel that way.

We, at the Department of Justice, will make this a priority, but we know that your Deputies are the ones who arrive first, respond to danger, and save our children without regard for their own personal safety.

But this cannot continue.

We are going to take action. We must reverse these trends.

Since the day I took office— in conjunction with our state and local colleagues— we have prioritized violent crime and violations of federal fire arms laws.

In the first quarter after I was sworn in, we saw a 23% increase in gun prosecutions and have now charged the most federal firearm prosecutions in a decade. It’s no good to have laws if they are not enforced.

I’ve directed my office of Legal Policy to work with our partners at Health and Human Services, Education, Homeland Security, and across this administration to study the intersection of mental health and criminality and identify how we can stop people capable of such heinous crimes.

It is too often the case that the perpetrators of these terrible attacks had given of signals in advance.

You are experienced professionals. You and I know that we cannot arrest everybody that somebody thinks is dangerous.

But I think we can and must do better. We owe it to every one of those kids crying outside their school yesterday and all those who never made it out. Our hearts are hurting today.

I think it’s also a reminder of how important the work we do really is.

The most important thing that any government does is to protect the safety and the rights of its citizens, and I understand the importance in this country of respecting the civil rights of every American. But, the first civil right is the right to be safe.

Everything else that we do as a government depends on that. We cannot allow politics or bad policies to get in the way of that mission. All of us—no matter your political party—depend upon law enforcement officers like you.

I know firsthand the important work that each of you do. I was a federal prosecutor for 14 years, and I was blessed to partner every day with federal, state, and local law enforcement officers to protect people’s rights. We were a close group— teammates. We took tons of drugs off our streets, dismantled domestic and international gangs and fraud schemes, and we prosecuted civil rights offenders to the fullest extent possible.

There is nothing I am more proud of than what we accomplished in our district. It made a difference.

You are the thin brown line that stands between law-abiding people and criminals – between safety and lawlessness.

And the American people know that. Last summer, Gallup released their annual poll, which showed that overall confidence in the police rose significantly last year. That is a good sign.

I’m not sure if you all saw this, but there was a survey recently that showed that more and more of our young people want to go into law enforcement. According to the survey, it used to be the number 10 dream job for kids under 12.

Now it’s number three overall—and for boys, it’s number one. Fewer and fewer kids dream about being athletes; more and more want to wear the badge.

That tells me that we’re doing something right.

It was largely because of smarter, more professional law enforcement policies and better training and management of law officers like you that crime went down in this country for 20 years. It was a long and historic crime decline, with murder rates cut by one half.

But over the past two or three years, the country and some political leaders lost the focus that had brought so much progress. Without proper support and affirmation, our work became more difficult.

The result: the violent crime rate went up nationally by nearly seven percent from 2014 to 2016. Robberies went up. Assaults went up nearly 10 percent. Rape went up by nearly 11 percent. Murder shot up by more than 20 percent.

Meanwhile we have suffered the deadliest drug crisis in American history.

And as sheriffs over large populations, you face special challenges and threats. These areas tend to have higher than average rates of violent crime, aggravated assault, and especially robbery.

The counties you represent have also been hit especially hard by the drug crisis. From 2014 to 2016, there was a sixfold increase in fentanyl overdose deaths in 24 of our 40 largest metro areas. In one major county, we saw a 28-fold increase.

We face serious challenges, but we will not stand by and watch violence and addiction rise. Plain and simple, we will not allow the progress made by our women and men in blue over the past two decades to simply slip through our fingers.

We will not cede one community, one block, or one street corner to violent thugs or poison peddlers. We will protect the poor as well as the rich.

The day I was sworn in as Attorney General, President Trump sent me a simple, straightforward executive order: reduce crime in America. Not to preside over ever-increasing crime rates. Reduce crime in America.

At the Department of Justice, we embrace that goal. And you and I know from experience that it can be done.

Some people don’t think it’s possible. They think that crime rates are like the tides.

But they’re wrong. Strong law enforcement and prosecutions can bring them down.

That’s why we’re trusting our prosecutors again and letting them prosecute the most serious, readily provable offense. We’re not going to hide the facts to avoid giving out harsh penalties. Justice means giving the sentence that is deserved by the crime.

That’s also why we have reprioritized the Project Safe Neighborhoods, which creates a customized crime-reduction strategy for each of our 94 U.S. Attorney districts across America. It’s not Washington-centered; it’s locally-centered.

We’re doing that because it is our goal to bring down violent crime, homicides, opioids prescriptions, and overdose deaths. These are the explicit goals we’ve established.

And over the past year, we’ve been getting after them. In 2017, the Department of Justice brought cases against the greatest number of violent criminals in a quarter of a century.

We also arrested and charged hundreds of people suspected of contributing to the ongoing opioid crisis.

And let me just say, you all are doing incredible work to help us turn the tide.

I heard about how Manatee County, Florida Sheriff Rick Wells partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to go after all drug cases in the county. Rick tells me that they went from having 11 overdoses per day at their peak to less than one a day now.

Rick helped cut overdoses by nearly three-quarters over six months and fatal overdoses by 85 percent in one year. That’s incredible work.

To help us find more opioid dealers and more evidence to convict them, I created the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit back in August. This unit uses data analytics to find outliers and the tell-tale signs of crime—like who is prescribing the most drugs, who is dispensing the most drugs, and whose patients are dying from overdoses. This unit is already leading to indictments.

On Tuesday, we arrested and charged a doctor in Las Vegas for allegedly prescribing fentanyl to patients without a legitimate medical purpose—and then lying to Medicare about it. Our new data analytics unit helped make this arrest possible.

That means fewer drugs on the streets of your communities—less drug activity, fewer overdoses, and, I believe, fewer dangerous situations for your deputies to go into.

For another example, last year the Department worked with our international allies to arrest or charge more than 4,000 MS-13 members.

That’s one more reason that we are no longer allowing so-called “sanctuary” jurisdictions to nullify federal immigration law if they want to receive our law enforcement grants.

It’s not that we want to de-fund these jurisdictions. We just want them to rethink their policies and start to cooperate with federal law enforcement.

I cannot send funds to jurisdictions who won’t meet minimum standards of partnership.

I know that this issue is important to this organization, and I want to thank you for the work that you have done.

I was in Florida last week, and I had the chance to meet with a number of Florida sheriffs.

After working with the Major County Sheriffs of America, 17 Florida sheriffs have worked out an agreement with ICE to help them take criminal aliens out of the Sunshine State.

Aliens held by these sheriffs are held under color of federal authority—that protects these sheriffs from being sued just for doing their jobs.

I want to encourage more of these agreements across America. We truly want to work with you to solve this problem.

I would like to take a moment to address the Schumer-Rounds-Collins proposal introduced in the Senate yesterday. I’ve seen these proposals before, and I know what this means.

It means that if you can get in the country today (or even any time through June), you can’t be deported.

This is open borders and mass amnesty and the opposite of what the American people support.

This amendment— plain as day— will invite a mad rush of illegality across our borders. It would protect from deportation millions of illegal aliens present in the United States today and countless others who will most certainly flood across the border.

The obvious intent of this amendment is to lay the groundwork for a mass amnesty— an amnesty which would likely benefit illegal aliens who are not even in the United States today.

Among its other flaws, it fails to close existing loopholes in law that permit the near unfettered entry of unaccompanied minors and family units— an unacceptable flaw that dooms this legislation. This past election, the American people spoke strongly of their desire to fix these problems. Legislation like this raises questions as to why we even have elections and undermine confidence in the public process.

President Trump has laid out a very reasonable and generous proposal.

This bill does not effectuate the President’s vision, nor does it reflect the desires of American people.

We are already starting to see positive signs of the Trump Administration’s approach to crime.

In the first six months of last year, the increase in the murder rate slowed significantly and violent crime actually went down. Publicly available data for the rest of the year suggest further progress.

These are major accomplishments that benefit the American people. And we could not have realized them without you—without a strong partnership between our federal team and our state and local law enforcement personnel.

Helping law enforcement do their jobs, helping the police get better, and celebrating the noble, honorable, and challenging work of our law enforcement communities will always be a top priority of President Trump and this Department of Justice.

Indeed, his first executive order to us on my first day was to back the men and women in uniform.

Together we can do this. We can bring down crime and give every American peace of mind.

I want to close by reiterating my deep appreciation and profound thanks to all the women and men of law enforcement – federal, state, local, and tribal. I want to thank every sheriff in America. Since well before our founding, the independently elected Sheriff has been seen as the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and amenable to the people.

The work that you do – that you have dedicated your lives to – is essential. I believe it. The Department of Justice believes it. And President Trump believes it.

You can be certain about this: we have your back and you have our thanks.

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