WASHINGTON Violent crime has increased in some cities in recent years in part because local police are too cash-strapped to fight it, the ATF chief said Monday.
The comments by Michael J. Sullivan, acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, echo pleas by mayors across the country for more federal dollars to combat crime.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sullivan called battling violent crime the No. 1 priority of ATF and said the agency is trying to help cities with federal task forces and technology.
Sullivan also said many cities no longer have the police manpower to respond to calls as quickly as they once did.
"Some of these jurisdictions that have seen an uptick with regard to violent crime it's coming at a time when their budgets have been pretty strapped," Sullivan told the AP.
"In fact, some of the jurisdictions have seen a decrease with regard to patrol officers who are available or detectives available to follow up on some of these incidents," Sullivan said. "And that obviously is a compounding effect with regard to what's going on, with regard to crime."
He described funding squeezes in many cities, like Chicago and Detroit, that "contribute to the potential of an uptick with regard to violent crime, because they don't have as many resources to respond as quickly to it as they once did."
Even so, Sullivan said, violent crime rates remain at what he called "record lows."
Murders, rapes and robberies appear to be on the downswing after two straight years of violent crime increases, according to the most recent local police data reported to the FBI.
However, violent crime rose slightly in small cities and rural areas, while murder rates jumped by 5 percent in suburbs and 3.2 percent in midsized cities during the first half of 2007, the most recent data available.
Mayors and police chiefs nationwide have long linked surging violent crime to dwindling federal grants that previously paid to hire more cops. The Bush administration, facing its own budget crunch while funding the war and reconstruction of Iraq, has scaled back the money available to cities to crack down on crime.
The Justice Department has offered to spend $200 million this year to combat violent crime in cities, but that likely won't cover the cost of hiring new police officers.
Ron Ruecker, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said federal, state and local funding cuts have forced police to scale back manpower and money devoted to battling gangs, drugs and career criminals.
"Every time we turn around, the staffing pressures that most of us are dealing with are having an impact in these others areas," said Ruecker, the public safety director of the city of Sherwood, Ore., a suburb of Portland, Ore. "You definitely can tie the decrease in funding with an uptick in crime, including violent crime."
In an hourlong, wide-ranging interview, Sullivan also touched on several other topics facing the ATF, a force of about 3,000 agents. They included:
Steps to investigate and prevent explosives attacks within the U.S., focusing particularly on the feared use of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that are a constant threat to coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sullivan said there's no evidence of insurgents or terrorists abroad bringing IEDs to the United States, noting that nearly all the annual 3,500 suspicious explosions in the country are investigated as the work of criminals not terrorists.
"It's intended to build upon the potential risks associated with explosive devices here domestically," Sullivan said. "Clearly we should be doing it, but not unnecessarily alarming the American public to things that aren't happening."
Tensions between ATF and its larger sister agency, the FBI, resulting in competition and overlapping of time and resources on similar projects. Sullivan described the bulk of the tension, as reported in Saturday's editions of the Washington Post, as personality driven and said much of it has dissolved in recent years. "We have to make sure that we're constantly complementing, not competing with one another," he said. "There's clearly more work to go around than can be accomplished by any one agency."
Whether the Senate will ever vote on Sullivan's own confirmation. Sullivan, still the U.S. attorney in Boston, was nominated as ATF's chief in March 2007. But Idaho's Republican senators so far have blocked the nomination out of concern the ATF has become overly aggressive in enforcing gun laws.
Sullivan said the ATF last year did compliance checks on about 10,000 gun dealers and brokers, and suspended the licenses of 97 fewer than 1 percent. He said the ATF is trying to balance regulating gun dealers equally across the country.