Ahead of a historically violent holiday weekend in Chicago, U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday decried gun violence in Chicago, announcing a new Gun Strike Force created by President Donald Trump to stop it.
"The Trump Administration will not let the bloodshed go on," Sessions said in a statement. "We cannot accept these levels of violence. That’s why, under President Trump’s strong leadership, we have created the Chicago Gun Strike Force."
Sessions said 20 more permanent ATF agents were sent to the city along with federal prosecutors with the purpose of "prioritizing prosecutions to reduce gun violence, and working with our law enforcement partners to stop the lawlessness.”
Sessions' statement was issued as Chicago Police and the Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms locally announced the taskforce. They described it as a "specialized team of Chicago police officers, federal agents, Illinois State troopers, intelligence analysts and state and federal prosecutors."
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted that he is "sending in Federal help" to Chicago, saying the city's crime and shootings have reached "epidemic proportions."
"Crime and killings in Chicago have reached such epidemic proportions that I am sending in Federal help," the president tweeted. "1714 shootings in Chicago this year!"
The move follows an earlier promise Trump made in January, when he tweeted that he would “send in the Feds!” to help curb the rising number of shootings in Chicago. It also comes just before the long Fourth of July weekend, which has previously been among the most violent in the city. Last year, 62 people were shot over the holiday weekend, including three children.
In the last week, 98 people have been shot in the city, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, and 1,727 have been shot this year.
On Thursday, authorities confirmed that roughly 20 agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are being sent to Chicago as part of a new initiative to combat gun violence in the city.
State police, intelligence analysts and state and federal prosecutors will target illegal guns and repeat gun offenders, Chicago police said. Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement Thursday night that "we are foundationally changing the way we fight crime in Chicago."
"We always welcome any assistance we can get," Anthony Riccio, head of the Chicago Police Department’s organized crime unit, told NBC 5.
Riccio added that the number of shootings so far this year is actually 14 percent less than last year.
"We are making progress," he said. "Nobody is celebrating certainly when you have that many people shot."
Police and federal officials note, however, that efforts to curb gun violence in Chicago have been cooperative — and are ongoing. Under the new effort, the federal prosecutors and prosecutors from Cook County will work on new strategies to prosecute gun crimes and offenders.
Sessions last week pledged federal assistance to 12 cities to help them develop individualized, long-term strategies to fight violence. But Chicago was not among them.
The Justice Department said that's because Chicago was already part of a similar Justice Department program called the Violence Reduction Network, which began in 2014. Under that initiative, federal agents teamed up with their local counterparts to share resources and intelligence.
The Justice Department spokesman said the department will keep working with cities including Chicago under the new crime-fighting program, called the Public Safety Partnership. And he noted that dozens of additional ATF agents had "surged" into Chicago so far this year.
The task force will use the ATF's new ballistic testing van to help solve crime in the city.
The van is a state-of-the-art mobile forensic lab that’s designed to assist law enforcement in analyzing bullet casings and other ballistic evidence instantly.
Officers can drive the van directly to crime scenes and analyze shell casings and weapons on the spot, getting immediate results linked to the ATF’s National Integration Ballistic Information Network.
The NIBIN is an interstate database that will allow authorities to gather information on suspects and develop leads within hours instead of days – helping them to ultimately track down and arrest gun offenders more quickly in the early, critical stages of an investigation.
“That shell casing is then entered into this national information network that ATF maintains and compared against like images to see if there’s a connection with other crimes,” ATF spokesman David Coulson said. “It’s kind of connecting the dots and it provides, hopefully what the goal is, actionable intelligence to investigators.”
The NIBIN van arrived in Chicago from Baltimore on June 1 and will stay in the city through the end of July as the ATF runs its pilot program. There is a possibility that it could stay longer in Chicago depending on the success of the program.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, speaking Friday on the Fox News Channel's morning show, "Fox & Friends," said the Justice Department is "sending in additional gun investigators" to Chicago and that he has urged the U.S. attorney's office to prosecute gun cases aggressively.
"The police have been demoralized in many ways," he said. "In many ways, the policies in Chicago have not been working. Murders are way, way too high. It is critical for the people of Chicago's public safety that we begin to work together here and deport violent criminals that have been convicted. They need to not be a sanctuary city, they need to be protecting the people of Chicago from violent criminals."