U.S. Attorney takes on Detroit's homicide rate

By Steve Thorpe Legal News Born in Detroit, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade tends to take the city's current crime problems personally. "I really care about this city," says McQuade, who now lives in Ann Arbor. "I want it to be the kind of place where people feel safe. Safe to go to school, go to the store, go about your business. It's painful to see babies getting killed, seniors getting carjacked." As the federal government's top lawyer in the Eastern District of Michigan, she's in a position to do something about it. Appointed in 2010, she has made violent crime, especially in Detroit, one of her top priorities. "I've made it a personal goal for 2012 to reduce the homicide rate in Detroit," says McQuade. "It is intolerably high." In several high-profile media appearances, she has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her counterparts in city and state government and vowed to tackle the rising tide of violence and homicide. During those press conferences, Mayor Dave Bing and Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee have praised the federal efforts. Originally referred to informally as the "48205 Project," the effort focused like a laser on the area defined by that postal code, which had the highest rate of homicide and violence in the city. It's since been expanded and the 48205 designation quietly dropped. "We've expanded the effort and we don't have a catchy name for it," McQuade says. "One of our assistant U.S. attorneys started it as a pilot program when we learned that 48205 was Detroit's deadliest zip code. We wondered why that was and if there was anything we could do." At first it seemed like a federal role might be limited. Homicide and assault are not federal crimes. She and her team searched for tools. "We don't prosecute homicides because that's not a federal offense, it's a state offense," she says. "We do prosecute gun cases. Most of the homicides involve guns. When we launched the '48205 Project' we decided to review every illegal gun case that comes in the door. ATF agents reviewed Detroit police files for potential federal prosecution and we took on every case that was eligible." Those cases included those where a person with a prior felony conviction possessed a firearm. Or they possessed a gun with an obliterated serial number or a stolen gun, since those are among the federal offenses. Another tool her federal team can wield is the tough prosecution strategy and even tougher sentencing found in the federal system. "Federal sentencing plays a very big role," she says. "For a gun violation in Wayne County, someone might get two years or maybe even probation. In the federal system our average sentence is seven years." As sobering as that thought might be for a potential wrongdoer, the fact that federal sentences can add up quickly can also give pause to a criminal. "That 86 months is just a basic 'felon in possession of a firearm' case," McQuade says. "If you use a gun in commission of a crime of violence--carjacking and armed robbery--we've seen sentences of 50 or 60 years when there are multiple counts." McQuade is quick to point out that state and local courts have little choice in how they handle cases. "They don't have discretion in the state system," she says. "They have to take every case that comes in the door. We can choose our priorities and, as a result, every case gets individualized attention. Federal law provides for stiff sentences and, in some cases, mandatory minimum sentences. No disrespect to the state system, but their sentences can be low because they have such a huge volume of cases that sometimes they don't even have room to house prisoners. Effective docket management also can also result in lower sentences." At a time when relations between officials of Detroit and the State of Michigan are strained, McQuade seems to have been able to mesh smoothly with leaders of both. She attributes some of that "diplomacy" to time spent in the federal National Security Unit, where she ran the "Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council" that brought together federal, state and local agencies to make sure information was shared and plans coordinated. "Information sharing is so critically important," McQuade says of her time in the unit. "Among the lessons of 9-11 is the importance of the right hand knowing what the left hand is doing. We were all working in harmony. It was an important lesson that can also be applied to attacking violent crime." McQuade is lavish in her praise of Detroit officials and police leaders and the energy and imagination they've brought to the fight against the city's crime. McQuade singled out Chief Godbee as being particularly tenacious in seeking solutions, wherever they may be found. "In the light of limited resources, he's asking 'What can we do here in Detroit to replicate success elsewhere?' He looked at a program they had in Milwaukee called the Milwaukee Homicide Project, which looked at the causes of every homicide." By examining past cases, investigators were able to identify trends and common characteristics. What was behind them? Was it a domestic dispute? If so, how did the person get the gun involved? Is there a particular flow of guns coming in that's leading to homicides? Is a large percentage based on the drug trade? Were they family-on-family? Are there services that can be used to intervene earlier, before these disputes lead to bloodshed? "The Detroit Police Department is now doing things to get to the causes of some of these homicides and they're asking whether there are ways they can be reduced," McQuade says. And finally, McQuade believes there is a vital role for citizens who don't wear a badge or have a title on their door. "I applaud the involvement of citizen groups. Law enforcement can't do it alone," she says. "We work with 'Crime Stoppers' and John Broad and they were with us at a recent press conference. They offer rewards and an anonymous tip line, both of which encourage people to step forward." She's heartened to see a proliferation of citizen groups, all wrestling with the crime problem. "There's 'Detroit 300,' 'Men on Patrol,' 'MADE Men,' all involved in citizen patrols and school security. We've seen a decrease in attacks on kids going to school because of these patrols. And when kids don't feel safe going to school, they might not go and that's not good for anybody. It's wonderful seeing people stepping up to be part of the solution." Published: Thu, Apr 5, 2012

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