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Squad 16 works in the everyday chaos of an inner-city police station.

Suspects' pictures decorate the walls. A large aerial photo of a stakeout site leans against a battered desk. Cops in jeans, T-shirts and shoulder holsters negotiate around piles of paperwork.But their badges indicate a difference. Mixed with a sprinkling of District of Columbia detectives are federal officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, among them veterans of Cold War intrigue.

Instead of pursuing Soviet spies and drug cartel members, these agents now chase murderers and street gangs.

"This is the first time we've put people into solving murders, and I've never seen guys work like they're working," said Phil Rendin, an FBI supervisor who runs the squad. "They want to turn things around and make this community a safer place to live in."

Squad 16 and other federal-local task forces now forming in nearly 50 cities, including Salt Lake City, represent a major change for the FBI. With many East Bloc espionage agencies fading away, the bureau has transferred 300 agents - the largest personnel shift in FBI history - from foreign counterintelligence to the violent crime division.

Their new charge: break up the gangs and crime that are turning U.S. cities into free-fire zones.

"The threat to the country right now is here," said Danny Coulson, deputy director of the FBI's criminal division. "Wherever we talk to people in the country, the one message that comes back is, `I'm afraid to walk the streets, my kids can't go to school, I can't go to church.' "

But some worry about the implications of federal agents working the jurisdiction of local authorities. They see potential abuse in the use of tough federal racketeering and conspiracy laws against street-corner criminals.

"It is appropriate to use these tools against gangs like the Bloods and Crips, but what I see it being used against is young, inner-city kids who are accused of being part of a gang that may never have existed," said Henry Asbill, president of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers.

The FBI's shift toward fighting street crime is part of the Justice Department's "weed and seed" policy, a two-tiered strategy for dealing with crime and social problems in the nation's cities.

The idea is to weed the criminal element from a neighborhood, then seed it with programs and grants.

"All the community initiatives to help a neighborhood, like better education or more job training, aren't effective as long as there is so much criminality that you can't get on the street to take part in it," Coulson said.

In some ways, the change brings the FBI full circle. The agency came to the forefront during the 1930s when it set about to combat the violent crimes of the day: interstate bank robberies and wandering gangs led by notorious figures like John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde.

But by the 1960s, the emphasis had shifted to other areas: espionage, organized crime, white collar crime and drug trafficking.

"Our responsibilities have expanded, but basically violent crime is what we were put in business to do in the late 1920s and 1930s," Coulson said.

Today, federal agencies, including the FBI, DEA and ATF, are teaming with local authorities to take on crime problems plaguing many cities. In Newark, a local-federal task force tracks down fugitives; in Chicago, the target is gangs. A Dallas task force is going after home invaders.

The focus in each city is decided by the local agent, in consultation with police and community leaders.

"It would be inappropriate for us in Washington to say, `In L.A., we think you ought to do this.' That's like Moscow setting grain quotas in the Ukraine. It just doesn't work," Coulson said.

FBI involvement offers many pluses: increased manpower, high-tech surveillance and state-of-the-art crime labs. But perhaps the most potent weapons are tough laws that can put gang members behind bars for decades.

A conviction on federal conspiracy charges means 20 years to life with no parole. A local court conviction for drug trafficking would mean four to eight years in prison.

The threat of hard time often makes it easier for investigators to pry cooperation and information out of gang members.

"Homicide guys working a murder may hear which gang did the shooting. Then we start jamming people up on charges," Rendin said. "The more time people face, the more cooperative they are."

Such tactics have borne fruit. Federal investigators have brought charges against gangs in Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities.

In December and February, federal and District of Columbia authorities staged raids against what they called the P Street Gang, seizing 50 grams of crack cocaine and 23 weapons. The criminal complaint against 18 people alleged they were part of a gang involved in indiscriminate murder and street violence.

In February, 24 people were charged under a federal indictment with operating a violent drug organization known as the R Street Crew. Among the list of racketeering offenses: drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy.

Prosecutors say the gang was in business since 1983, buying and selling more than $560 million in drugs. The government is seeking to seize two houses and 14 cars, including seven Mercedes, it says were purchased with drug money.

FBI and local police made some 200 audio and video surveillance tapes and executed 31 search warrants during the investigation.

The idea behind the mass indictments is to bring down an entire gang, rather than pick away at its leadership.

"We'd go after the head, and someone else would take over. All we were doing was creating an employment opportunity within the gang," Coulson said. "Now we're trying to create the situation where there are no opportunities to be promoted because the organization's not there."

But defense attorneys say the zeal for mass prosecutions can bring the considerable weight of federal resources down on relatively minor lawbreakers.

Bernard Grimm, a Washington attorney who successfully defended an alleged gang member against racketeering and conspiracy charges, calls that case an example of overkill.

"The FBI had a preconceived notion that this was a drug cartel before they got involved in the case, and they never let loose of that notion," he said. "Our defense was this was a bunch of nickel and dime drug dealers who happened to get their drugs from the same source."

Attorneys also complain that prosecutors in federal racketeering cases have a huge advantage: To prove a criminal conspiracy, they can bring up details and allegations not allowed in regular criminal proceedings.

"It is a real difficult task for defendants who are indigent and have court-appointed attorneys," said Asbill.

But Coulson maintains that the crisis of crime in the nation's cities is denying the general public their own rights.

"We've woken up and found our freedoms being denied on the streets," he said. "People can't do all the things the Constitution guarantees them because of crime."