U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday that the FBI "probably" would be able to act on Baltimore's request for that agency to take over the investigation of the death of a city police detective last month, but it remained unclear when a decision would be made.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis asked the FBI on Dec. 1 to take the lead on the probe into Detective Sean Suiter's death. The FBI has said it is cooperating in the case but has not publicly responded to the city's request.
Suiter, 43, was shot in the head Nov. 15 as he investigated a triple killing from 2016 in Harlem Park, police said. He had been scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury the next day in the racketeering probe of Baltimore's Gun Trace Task Force.
Sessions, speaking Tuesday in Baltimore at a news conference focusing on international gangs, said the FBI "will be considering that request and will probably be able to act on it with their initial decision."
Sessions did not respond to a separate question about when the city would receive a more concrete answer.
Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh reiterated that her administration would prefer the FBI take over the Suiter case. "I'm hoping that they will move forward with it," she said in an interview.
Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen came to Baltimore to discuss the Trump administration's effort to crack down on MS-13, the best-known of the gangs that originated in the 1980s among Central American immigrants in Los Angeles.
"They must be stopped," Nielsen said of MS-13 gang members. "We are coming for you. You cannot hide."
MS-13 has been far more active in the Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties than in Baltimore, and Sessions and Nielsen both cited examples of crimes carried out by the gang in other parts of the state.
It's not clear how addressing MS-13 would affect Baltimore's staggering homicide rate, which Sessions pointed to in his opening remarks.
"We know MS-13 in the region here is responsible for a quite a number of the most brutal murders," Sessions said. "I don't know that the city itself has a high MS-13 murder rate … but this region — Northern Virginia; Islip, New York; Houston; Los Angeles — are the centerpieces of the most MS-13 violence."
Tying MS-13 — and therefore immigration enforcement — to urban crime in America has been a longstanding theme of the Trump administration. As a candidate, President Donald J. Trump repeatedly suggested Baltimore's homicide rate was being driven in part by Central American gangs.
T.J. Smith, the Baltimore Police Department's chief spokesman, said in a statement that violent gangs are a police priority.
Smith did not respond directly to a question about how significant MS-13's impact is on the city, but said that the gang is "is operating in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area, and our ability to limit or eliminate their criminal profile in Baltimore is important for public safety."
Pugh said the city is already working with federal agencies, including the FBI, on gang reduction efforts in the city.
"We don't want violent gangs in our city and to the extent that they can help us with that, we appreciate it," Pugh said.
Sessions and Nielsen pointed to the attack Tuesday in New York City as further evidence of the need to improve immigration enforcement. Authorities say that a 27-year-old Bangladeshi national is in custody following what appeared to be a failed suicide bombing.
Sessions, who took over the Justice Department after it negotiated a consent decree to reform Baltimore's Police Department, blamed the city's violent crime in part on criticism of police following the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old died of injuries sustained in police custody, setting off the 2015 riots in the city.
Sessions has been critical of how the Obama administration pursued consent decrees — arguing that they punish entire departments for the actions of a few officers. Baltimore officials, who had requested the federal oversight, rushed to get an agreement in place in the waning days of the Obama administration.
"The crime rate should not have increased here at the rate that it has," Sessions said. "We've got to be careful when we have a problem in a police department that we target the people who did wrong but not demean the morale and the quality and the integrity of the entire department. You can trace the surge in violence in this city to the riots and some of the reactions that occurred afterward."
Sessions has held similar events across the country this year. Speaking in Philadelphia in October, he said that MS-13 would be a top priority for a federal task force focused on organized crime. He used a speech in Miami over the summer to criticize Chicago for its so-called sanctuary policy in which local corrections officials limit cooperation with immigration agents.
The Trump administration's stance on Baltimore's immigration policies has been inconsistent. The Department of Homeland Security named the city a "sanctuary" in a February report. But the Justice Department sent Baltimore officials a letter in August seeking additional information about the policy — namely whether officials will hold an immigrant in the country illegally in jail beyond when they would otherwise be released so Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents could apprehend them.
The city responded by pointing out that the state sets that policy for Baltimore's jail, not city leadership. It's not clear whether the Justice Department ever followed up or was satisfied with that answer.
Asked Tuesday whether he believes Baltimore is a "sanctuary" jurisdiction — a term that is not defined in law — Sessions said city officials had "declared it so."
In fact, city officials have rejected that term.
"We're reviewing things to make sure of the details of each city," said Sessions, a former senator from Alabama. "I see no justification whatsoever for any city, any jurisdiction, any state to take the view that someone who enters the country illegally and then commits some other crime should be protected from the federal law to be deported."
Gov. Larry Hogan's administration has not held immigrants in jail beyond their scheduled release when requested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The state says it instead gives federal agents advance notice before those individuals are released so that they can pick them up as they leave the state's custody.
About a dozen protesters gathered outside the U.S. attorney's office in downtown Baltimore as Sessions spoke. One handmade sign claimed Sessions loved former Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Sessions has recused himself from the ongoing probe into Russian involvement in the 2016 election after revelations that he had met with Kislyak during the campaign.
Sessions' appearance in Baltimore fell on the same day that voters in his home state of Alabama were deciding who would replace him in the Senate. The race became unexpectedly close following allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at the Republican nominee, Roy Moore.
Sessions said he voted by absentee ballot in the race, but he did not reveal whom he supported.
"I value the sanctity of the ballot," he said.