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A.G. Jeff Sessions says program to reduce violent crime working in Utah, across country

SALT LAKE CITY — Violent crime and murder were down across the country last year, and Utah prosecutors are "running up the score" on criminals, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Wednesday.

Sessions credited the downward trend to Project Safe Neighborhoods, a 17-year-old federal partnership with state and local police agencies that the Trump administration relaunched a year ago this week.

"To say what we do doesn't make any difference is ridiculous. What we do does make a difference," the former Alabama senator told about 500 officers and prosecutors at the state Capitol. "We've never had better trained police than we do today."

One study showed that, in its first five years, the program reduced violent crime by 4.1 percent, with case studies showing reductions in some areas of more than 40 percent, Sessions said.

There are Americans who are not victims and who are alive today because of the program, he said.

Sessions also announced that the Justice Department is awarding $30 million to 86 jurisdictions in the country for the program, including $262,000 for Ogden.

In April, U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber identified a 5-square-mile section covering downtown Ogden as a Project Safe Neighborhoods target enforcement area.

"Our goal is not to fill up the courts or fill up the prisons. Our goal is to reduce crime to make our communities safer," he said.

While in Salt Lake City, Sessions also met privately with Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Huber and other law enforcers. He did not take questions from the media.

Herbert spokesman Paul Edwards described the conversation as "free flowing" on a variety of topics, including "nuance" associated with public lands in the West.

Sessions also talked about his agency's emphasis on the reaffirmation of freedom of religion as a cornerstone constitutional right, Edwards said.

About a dozen people with Utahns Against Police Brutality demonstrated outside the Capitol while Sessions spoke. One carried a sign reading, "Sessions is a racist," while another sign read, "Return the children."

"We do not want him here. We don't care for him. We don't care for his policies, especially where he stands on immigration," said Deborah Blake, one of the protest organizers.

Blake said if Sessions is in Utah to talk about reducing violence, then he needs to address the police violence that's going on in the state.

Sessions did not talk about his apparently strained relationship with President Donald Trump, who appointed him last year. Trump has accused Sessions of doing poorly in several facets of his job, fueling speculation that the president might fire him.

The attorney general's only reference to Trump in his speech was a "law and order" president.

"He took office with a mission, a mandate from the American people to restore public safety," Sessions said.

Sessions said there are signs that his goals to reduce crime, homicides, opioid prescriptions and overdose deaths are being achieved.

The FBI's final crime numbers for 2017 showed that violent crime and murder had not just stabilized, but went down, he said. One estimate projects that the murder rate in the nation's 29 biggest cities will decline by 7.6 percent this year — bringing it down to 2015 levels in those cities, Sessions said.

Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt said the program is already working in his city, which has a problem with gangs and drug trafficking. Gangs aren't territorial anymore but they compete for business, he said, adding that their presence fuels a lot of different crime.

"When it comes to violent crime and career criminals, every minute I can keep them off the streets of Ogden and Weber County or out of Salt Lake County is a good minute for me," he said.

Watt said the city is using the Project Safe Neighborhoods grant to fund crime-fighting initiatives, downtown foot and bicycle patrols, overtime and equipment. Police currently have 46 active criminal cases in various stages of screening involving gun violence and drugs, he said.

Huber said he believes Utah overall has turned the corner on reducing violent crime since seeing a 14 percent increase in 2015 and a 18 percent increase in 2016. The state saw an 8 percent decrease last year, according to the Utah Department of Public Safety.

"Our prosecutors in Utah are running up the score against the criminals," Sessions said.

He said they have charged 29 percent more defendants in 2017 than they did in 2014, including 64 percent more drug trafficking defendants, 44 percent more violent crime defendants and 40 percent more illegal re-entries.