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Calif. LE operation aims for harsher penalties for violent crimes through federal prosecution

‘Operation Safe Cities’ will train police detectives to prepare federal cases against gun crime suspects; leaders believe that prosecuting suspects on federal charges will allow for harsher penalties

Dominic H. Choi

Chief Dominic H. Choi, talks after being sworn in as the interim Chief of The Los Angeles Police Department on Friday, March 1, 2024, in Los Angeles. “This effort is to ensure the most violent people out there on the streets are prosecuted and spend the time in jail that they need to,” he said during a press conference in downtown Los Angeles.
(AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Richard Vogel/AP

By Nathan Solis
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — In a bid to impose heavier penalties on repeat criminal offenders, top Southern California law enforcement officials announced a new initiative Wednesday to target and try more suspects under federal guidelines.

The initiative, dubbed Operation Safe Cities, was born out of frustration with violent criminals carrying out brazen robberies with firearms — and seeks to build on existing partnerships to secure additional resources and more readily flag relevant offenses for federal authorities who have access to stricter sentencing statutes.

“This effort is to ensure the most violent people out there on the streets are prosecuted and spend the time in jail that they need to,” interim Los Angeles Police Department Chief Dominic Choi said during a press conference in downtown Los Angeles.

The goal, officials said, is to train local police detectives to prepare cases that could be elevated to the federal level. Representatives from the LAPD, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Ventura County Sheriff’s Office will review potential cases with their counterparts in the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, according to U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada.

“We see individuals using guns to commit extortion, and individuals using guns to commit kidnappings and assaults,” Estrada said during the news conference. “This increase in violent gun crime is unacceptable.”

The push to more widely leverage the federal judicial system likely would sidestep local and state prosecutors. Estrada said he has had conversations about Operation Safe Streets with Ventura County Dist. Atty. Erik Nasarenko and L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón.

“We feel it’s our place to use the powerful sentencing tools we have to address this,” Estrada said. “We are being collaborative in this and are working with our state [and] local partners to make this a success.”

Neither Gascón — whose policies critics have condemned as overly lenient — nor Nasarenko was among the cadre of top criminal justice officials in attendance at Wednesday’s press conference. But in a statement, the L.A. County district attorney’s office applauded the initiative, welcoming “the introduction of additional effective tools and resources in combating violent crimes.”

“Operation Safe Cities complements our broader strategy of ensuring that violent perpetrators face accountability for their actions,” the statement continued. “We look forward to continuing our work alongside our federal partners to ensure that every available resource and strategy is used to make L.A. County a safer place for all.”

As to whether this initiative would preclude the district attorney from taking on these types of cases, Gascón “rejects any assertion that this is an attempt to sidestep his jurisdiction or thwart his discretion,” his office added in a separate statement.

Authorities will take care to ensure the emphasis on stricter penalties for convicted individuals will not repeat the mass incarceration of Black and brown residents seen during previous “tough on crime” initiatives, Estrada said.

“We take a thoughtful approach to who we prosecute and the cases we prosecute,” he said.

In 2022, 32% of those sentenced to state or federal prison were Black, while 31% were white and 23% were Hispanic, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The latest U.S. Census data show that residents identifying as Black or African American alone make up a little over 13% of the U.S. population, while those identifying as Hispanic or Latino make up 19%.

Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies across the nation grappled with a significant spike in violent crime. In California in 2020, homicides using firearms increased by 40.6% and assaults with firearms went up by 29% from the previous year, according to a Times analysis of Department of Justice data.

The trend continued in 2021, with each category of crimes increasing 8% before dropping off by about as much in 2022, the most recent year for which data were available. But the rate for 2022 remains noticeably higher than pre-pandemic figures. Guns were used in 71.2% of homicides and 21.8% of assaults in 2022, compared with 68% and 16.9%, respectively, in 2019.

In Los Angeles, LAPD data showed a double-digit drop in violent crimes last year compared to 2022. Killings and shootings in 2023 were down 17% and 10%, respectively, compared to the previous year. Overall, the homicide rate dropped 16% and there were 127 fewer gunshot victims than the previous year. But the total number of gunshot victims in 2023, 1,206, was still 260 more than in 2019, according to the LAPD.

Still, authorities say they hope Operation Safe Cities will offer law enforcement agencies more tools to prosecute criminals.

Officers from specialized divisions within the LAPD have worked with federal partners before, but more desk detectives will be able to review those offenses that could become federal cases, Choi said.

“These agency partnerships are force multipliers in preventing crime and finding justice for victims,” said Ted Docks, FBI special agent in charge of the criminal division in L.A., citing existing collaborative efforts focused on gang violence, narcotics and bank robberies.

L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna pointed to an investigation into a pair of people suspected of robbing more than 20 Trader Joe’s across multiple California counties in 2020. Law enforcement agencies worked together to apprehend the suspects, and one was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison after being tried in federal court.

But law enforcement is just one piece of the puzzle. Authorities also rely on watchful residents and forthcoming witnesses to combat violent crime.

“We recognize that we do not do this alone. We can’t be successful alone. Addressing violent crime is not just a law enforcement issue,” Luna said.

Times staff writers Sonja Sharp, Libor Jany and Terry Castleman contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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