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How the Justice Department plans to help in the fight against violent crime

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

State and local police are on the front lines when it comes to violent crime. But Attorney General Merrick Garland told the nation's mayors today that the federal government stands ready to help.

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MERRICK GARLAND: Gun violence is a universal challenge and one that demands comprehensive action.

KELLY: NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Justice Department has already launched five strike forces to disrupt illegal firearms traffic and share intelligence. Attorney General Merrick Garland told the U.S. Conference of Mayors more help is on the way.

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GARLAND: At the Justice Department, we stand shoulder to shoulder with you in the fight against violent crime. And we will use every tool at our disposal to protect our communities.

JOHNSON: Garland has been using executive action, proposing new rules to curb the spread of ghost guns that lack serial numbers and to promote safe storage of firearms. Last year, the Justice Department handed out $139 million to spur the hiring of more cops on the street. But the attorney general says the DOJ also wants to invest in social workers, community violence interrupters and programs to help people with mental illness.

QUINTON LUCAS: The challenge over the last few years is too much of the debate has been either-or.

JOHNSON: That's Quinton Lucas. He's the mayor in Kansas City, Mo.

LUCAS: It is either law enforcement, police officers on the street and funding them or you invest in programs in your community, violence interruption, cure violence models, etc.

JOHNSON: Kansas City saw 182 homicides in 2021, the second-deadliest year in its history. Lucas says the Justice Department under former President Trump flooded many cities with federal agents. Now, Lucas says, he wants to see another kind of flood.

LUCAS: Resources that help us fund more of our social work programs, particularly in our work with young people - that's the sort of change we need from this administration. And I think mayors are waiting to see when that will happen because Lord knows the problem isn't easing up in any of our cities.

JOHNSON: Kris Brown is president of Brady United Against Gun Violence. Brown says the Biden administration has taken some positive steps on gun violence so far, but she wants to see more enforcement of laws already on the books and a new leader for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

KRIS BROWN: We need this administration to put someone - a director forward who understands the agency and can make it work exactly as it should.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department is grappling with multiple challenges, including some 850 reports of threats to U.S. election officials. On Friday, federal prosecutors brought their first criminal case against a Texas man who threatened officials in Georgia. Court papers say Chad Stark wrote it was time to, quote, "put a bullet" in one election official and pay a visit to another election worker and her family.

LISA MONACO: Today's charges are a milestone for the Election Threats Task Force that I announced just last summer.

JOHNSON: That's Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in an exclusive interview with NPR.

MONACO: It wasn't just that we'd seen a surge in threats, but also, frankly, the alarmingly personal and violent and aggressive nature of the threats.

JOHNSON: Monaco says election workers are protecting democracy, and the Justice Department will protect them.

MONACO: Today's charges are the first, but they will not be the last.

JOHNSON: Justice Department officials say there are dozens of open investigations into election threats.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUZANNE KRAFT'S "FLATIRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.