One year ago, President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions made Project Safe Neighborhoods the centerpiece of a nationwide strategy to fight gangs, drugs and gun-toting criminals.
On Monday, U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott said the strategy is working, especially in Fresno County where federal, state and local law enforcement have joined forces to take down the MS-13 gang in Mendota and the Dog Pound and Malos Hechos gang in Fresno.
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At a news conference Monday in U.S. District Court in Fresno, Scott commended Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, Sheriff Margaret Mims and Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, calling the working relationship with them “the gold standard.”
Because of the relationship, murders, shootings and other violent crimes in Fresno County have declined after spiking in 2015 and 2016, Scott said.
Kern County District Attorney-elect Cynthia Zimmer, Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward, and Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager also stood by Scott.
Since October 2017, more than 110 defendants have faced federal charges - the result of federal prosecutors working with law enforcement in Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Stanislaus counties, Scott said.
Fresno County had the most federal prosecutions during that time with 57 defendants, he said.
Project Safe Neighborhoods was initially launched in 2001, but Scott said it has been revitalized under Trump and Sessions.
Federal prosecution has its advantages, Scott said, such as longer sentences and defendants doing 85 percent of their time behind bars. In state court, Scott said, “No longer is there truth in sentencing.” Oftentimes state prisoners do 50 percent of their time or get released early by a parole board, he said.
Another advantage, Scott said, is that gang defendants are being sent to federal prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas, or on the East Coast, where they will no longer have a grip on criminal activity back home.
A key component of the new commitment requires federal and state prosecutors to meet regularly to go over cases and determine which agency should prosecute in order to get the most prison time for a defendant.
Fresno residents have benefited from the federal prosecutions, Dyer said, pointing to a decline in violent crime, including murders and shootings. For example, so far this year, there have been 30 homicides in Fresno, compared to 43 at this time last year, Dyer said.
Smittcamp, Dyer and Mims said the renewed federal commitment comes at an opportune time because Gov. Jerry Brown has enacted laws they said that have hurt public safety.
“In California, there has been a weakening of the laws,” Dyer told the gathering.
The city of Fresno is in a pickle, the chief said, because gang members are “extremely intelligent.”
“If they can do a crime and not do the time, they are going to do the crime,” Dyer said.
But once the U.S. Attorney’s Office gets involved in the prosecution, gang members know there will be “swift and long-term consequences,” he said.
The MS-13 case, called Operation Blue Inferno, resulted in 21 defendants being charged with offenses including murder, kidnapping, assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering, as well as a drug trafficking conspiracy.
In Operation Dog Track, 17 members or associates of the Dog Pound Gangster street gang have pleaded guilty to charges ranging from human trafficking and fraud to firearms offenses. So far, 11 have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.
A 2017 Fresno gang investigation, called Operation Alpha Dog resulted in 18 defendants facing federal charges and at least 14 defendants facing state charges, ranging from drug trafficking, conspiracy to traffic firearms, and human trafficking.
A multi-agency investigation of Bakersfield’s West Side Crips gang, called Operation Blind Mice, resulted in federal indictments against 11 gang members or associates as well as state charges against about 30 others for crimes ranging from burglary to murder.
The public needs to support Project Safe Neighborhoods, Smitcamp said, because it is tackling an issue that is “the nemesis of our community:” criminals who use stolen and illegal guns.
“The guns are killing our children. They are killing women. They are killing men,” Smittcamp said. “They are killing people of color and killing and people who live in wealthy areas and people in low-income areas. They do not discriminate.”
The violence that comes with guns, Smittcamp said, “is toxic to our communities.”