US attorney general says feds will focus on high-crime areas

U.S. Attorney General William Barr says federal authorities will coordinate with state and local law enforcement officers to crack down on violence in cities with high crime rates in the coming months

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Federal authorities will coordinate with state and local law enforcement officers to crack down on violence in cities with high crime rates in the coming months after arresting hundreds of fugitives under a program underway nationwide, U.S. Attorney General William Barr said Tuesday.

Barr's announcement came as he joined other federal authorities and about 30 state and local law enforcement agents in New Mexico following the recent arrests of 330 fugitives in the state. The arrests had resulted from an initiative known as Operation Triple Beam, a U.S. Marshal-led program that began in 2011, officials said.

Barr said a push in the past two years to increase arrests under the program had paved the way for more federal crime-fighting efforts that would see a boost in the coming weeks. He did not elaborate or say which cities would be targeted during a news conference in Albuquerque, where he said violent crime rates "remain stubbornly high" in comparison to the rest of the country.

"I don't think it's a secret to anyone here that New Mexico generally and Albuquerque specifically are experiencing a violent crime crisis," Barr said.

The state has long struggled to overcome persistently high crime rates, which it has tried to curb with state law enforcement units deployed to arrest fugitives. Lawmakers also have pushed a range of reform measures, including a bill that called for more inmates to be enrolled in Medicaid so they have better access to drug and mental health treatment options after their release.

The most recent FBI figures show New Mexico had the nation's second highest violent crime rate and its highest property crime rate last year. That's despite Albuquerque reporting a slight decrease in both categories for the first time in years.

Crime in New Mexico's largest city accounted for more than half the state's crime overall. The data offers a broad look at crime in thousands of U.S. cities but can be inconsistent and incomplete.

Jessie Damazyn, a spokeswoman for Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, did not comment directly on Barr's visit in an email to The Associated Press.

But she said the public safety mandate among community members called for long-term partnerships and more community policing, which typically calls for officers to spend enough time in specific neighborhoods to become a familiar and trusted face among residents.

"It takes all of us working together with our community to fight violent crime," said Jessie Damazyn, a spokeswoman for Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller.

At the news conference, Barr called the state's criminal justice system "subpar," which he blamed on policies that give judges broad discretion over whether to detain suspects awaiting trial.

Bennett Bauer, the state's chief public defender, said he has seen no evidence that the state's pretrial release system has spurred more crime in the state. He added that Barr's criticism amounted to a "blame game" on judges.

"If the feds really want to help our communities, they should stick around and help fund solutions to the problems underlying crime," said Bennett Bauer, the state's chief public defender. "Help us provide more drug treatment, education, jobs and rehabilitation in our prison system."

Of the 330 arrests in New Mexico, 10 of the suspects were wanted in homicide cases and 50 faced assault charges, the Justice Department said. About 90 of those arrested were wanted on drug charges, and about 56 pounds of methamphetamine and other drugs were seized.

In the past year, federal authorities also touted arrests, and gun and drug seizures under the program in Salinas, California; Phoenix; Tucson, Arizona; and Lawrence, Massachusetts.

In New Mexico, the arrests resulted from a three-month operation.

Barr's visit follows Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's recent announcement that a special state law enforcement unit would renew efforts to find fugitives.

The unit's seven state police officers and seven corrections officers are expected to help reduce the 1,600 warrants for people linked to violent crimes in New Mexico.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales said he welcomed the help fighting crime. His office assigned 100 officers — a third of its force — to assist with Operation Triple Beam, officials said.

"We're not done," he said. "This is just the start."