HOUSTON - Some of the nation’s leading law officers are in Houston announcing a major effort to fight violent crime here as part of a new widespread initiative.
The U.S. Department of Justice's first-of-its-kind pilot program in Houston is part of a $100-million plan to get and keep violent criminals behind bars nationwide. In fact, Houston was handpicked to take part.
"We selected Houston for a very important reason," explains Kenneth Polite Assistant Attorney General with the DOJ Criminal Division. "Like many communities across this country it's a community that continues to struggle with violent crime."
According to the Justice Department, Houston was also picked for the unique law enforcement partnerships used to successfully investigate criminals, which is the foundation of the new DOJ initiative.
Local, state and federal agencies are collaborating, coming together for one goal.
"Together 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 adds.
"Gangs we might say, we call today, the modern-day mafia," says Special Agent in Charge of FBI Houston James Smith. "The crimes we’re seeing are so diverse, so dangerous, so all encompassing for any one agency to tackle."
"We’re going to do everything we can," adds Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. "We’re going to use every resource possible to make sure we’re dismantling gangs."
"We are adding five trial attorneys from the (Justice) department’s criminal division to work alongside our Houston U.S. Attorney's Office assistant U.S. attorneys from our violent crime section," says the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Jennifer Lowery.
The team will also use federal laws such as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization or RICO Act so that violent offenders "will be arrested, will not be released on bond and will receive significant prison sentences," Lowery explains.
"Everybody knows our backlog in Houston/Harris County is unlike any other county in the nation right now. So thank you DOJ for stepping up and coming in and helping us," says Houston Police Chief Troy Finner.
Another tool the team will use? The ATF's National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, which stores data about shell casings from crimes.
"So when we recover the gun we know everything that gun’s been used for and the individual that had it what they’re responsible for," says Special Agent in Charge of Houston ATF Fred Milanowski.
Houstonians say they welcome the crackdown.
"We hear a lot more sirens than we used to hear. So it’s important to try to keep our city safe, and it doesn’t feel safe right now," says Houston resident Terri Harrel.
"It’s a big city. It's a melting pot. It’s a great place, but we need to look at our justice system," adds resident Diane.
Before the crime initiative announcement, which was held at Yates High School the team talked with students there and also met with local clergy because they say the community is an important piece of the partnership.
The team says the effort is not just about enforcement but also prevention and programs will be created to address a number of issues including reentry efforts for ex-offenders heading back into the community.