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Lynch presses for more action to address gangs, youth violence

Federal, local officials meet in Baltimore to discuss gangs, youth violence

U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch used an address in Baltimore on Monday to stress the need for Washington to work with local officials on youth violence and gangs, particularly in cities that are still wrestling with those problems despite a national reduction in crime.

Speaking at an annual forum that brings together federal and local officials, Lynch pointed to efforts by the Obama administration in Boston, where major crime is at its lowest point in a decade, and New Orleans, where the number of homicides has fallen by more than 30 percent.

Conditions are more grim in cities such as Baltimore, where, despite similar efforts by federal and local officials, killings jumped to record levels in 2015 and overall violent crime is up. Justice Department officials said they chose Baltimore for the National Summit on Preventing Youth Violence partly as a show of support.

"National crime rates are at an historic low — we are of course tremendously grateful for that — but a number of cities have experienced increases in homicides and violent crime, and these crimes include crimes involving young people," Lynch said. "It's an issue not just of public safety, but of public health."

Lynch, a former federal prosecutor in New York, was sworn in as the nation's top law enforcement official on the day in April last year that Baltimore erupted in riots over the death of Freddie Gray. She visited Baltimore a week later, and her department increased funding to federally led anti-crime efforts in the city.

But perhaps the most significant interaction between the Justice Department and the city is the civil investigation into the Baltimore Police Department that the Obama administration opened last spring. Justice officials have reviewed thousands of records to determine whether police engaged in a pattern of violating residents' constitutional rights.

In other cities, such investigations have exposed problems such as brutality and outmoded training, leading to federal oversight that can last for years and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Baltimore has long struggled with rampant gun violence. Law enforcement officials blame the local drug trade, gang disputes and a cycle of retaliation.

Violent crime exploded last summer to levels not seen in decades — with gunshot victims, most of them young black men, dying in the city on a daily basis.

By year's end, there had been 344 killings, making 2015 the deadliest year per capita in the city's history. With 127 more killings recorded than in 2014, the city saw a 58.5 percent increase in homicides and the largest jump in absolute numbers in the nation.

By comparison, the city recorded 197 killings in 2011.

Of the 344 people killed in 2015, 90 were reported to be gang members, police said. Of 85 suspects in those killings, 13 were reported to be gang members.

The violence has continued into this year. Through June 18, homicides were down about 8 percent compared to the same time last year, but nonfatal shootings were up 12 percent, and total violent crime was up 9 percent.

The surge in violence in some cities comes as crime has fallen nationally. The homicide rate in the United States dropped from 9.8 out of 100,000 in 1991 to less than half of that in 2014.

Several large cities that saw violence decline last year are experiencing increases this year.

Following the riots in Baltimore last year, the Justice Department contributed nearly a dozen special agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to work with city law enforcement. The federal department provided a $1 million grant to improve safety in the McElderry Park neighborhood and another $1 million to fund programs intended to help male survivors of violence and their families in the city.

The youth violence summit is scheduled to continue through Wednesday. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is not expected to attend, but planned to send a video message that participants will see later this week. The mayor is expected to stress that preventing youth violence is a priority for her administration, according to an early draft of a script reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

"Progress will only be achieved through intentional, strategic, and collaborative efforts by the entities and agencies that most frequently interact with these children that become victims and or perpetrators of violence in Baltimore City," according to the script.

The summit has brought 600 participants from more than 30 cities to the Inner Harbor. Education Secretary John King spoke Monday, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez is schedule to address the participants on Tuesday.

The summit has grown out of the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention and the My Brother's Keeper Task Force, which President Barack Obama created in 2014 to address educational and economic gaps faced by boys and young men of color.

"Most of the cities have been at his work for a while — so we're continuing to grow and take it to the next level," Karol Mason, assistant attorney general in the Office of Justice Programs, said in an interview. "We know what works, but now the question is equipping people to make the investments they need and to have the relationships that they need."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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