This story was written by CBS News producer Beverley Lumpkin.
Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty spoke Wednesday at the Police Executive Research Forum, where he was barraged with a series of highly critical questions from some very unhappy police chiefs and mayors.
McNulty clearly knew coming in that he was going to be grilled. But the criticism was much stronger than he seemed to have anticipated, and he did not seem to be very well-briefed on some issues of prime importance to the attendees.
Before McNulty began speaking at the forum, where no cameras were allowed, there was a summary of statistics. The numbers clearly reflected an increase in crime nearly everywhere across the country. The spikes were notable and alarming, and PERF head Chuck Wexler said they reflected that the rise in crime "Is not about one city; it's about the country."
With that kind of preamble, when McNulty opened his remarks and quickly mentioned the "potential rise in crime," he was already off on the wrong foot.
He spoke of how much he likes getting together with law enforcement personnel and how important it is to have working partnerships with state and local agencies. He stated several times how anxious he was to hear from them what the feds can do to help. He also delivered an apologia, saying he was "well aware there are many needs and desires on the part of law enforcement that we are not able to address," and adding that the challenge is to look for ways that the feds can help.
The first question went right to the heart of the Bush administration's policy on guns — and the fact that Congress "is making it harder for the police and ATF to track" them. The questioner begged McNulty's aid in making it easier to trace the guns, making the point that the problem is kids with guns and tracing them would make their partnerships work more easily. McNulty seemed unaware of the issue. What in particular, he asked, was the problem?
Trenton, N.J., Mayor Doug Palmer spoke up, citing restrictions on the use of data. He noted that his state has one of the nation's toughest gun laws, but said Pennsylvania has one of the most liberal, and thus guns come into his state far too easily.
"I know the NRA is strong, but we're stronger," Palmer said. In addition, he noted, members of Congress don't have to call a parent whose child has been shot in the face.
McNulty mentioned that he'd recently visited the ATF's tracing center in West Virginia and said that they're making great progress. But, he added, he had to "confess" he was "not familiar" with the issue.
"What you see is a national evasion of the gun problem. ... The problem has become bigger than Capitol Hill. … We really need a national response," Kilpatrick said.
He added that when he took office, homicides were down but "now everything is exploding again." He "thought it was a Detroit problem" until he got to the meeting. His police chief had been assuring him Detroit was not alone, but he didn't believe it until now.
Kilpatrick argued the need for an effective, national emergency response. It's "the NRA versus the rest of everybody else," he lamented, adding that help is necessary now that "every city in the country is saying I got 13-year-olds with guns" robbing and killing.
The room burst into loud applause when Kilpatrick pointed out that there is $386 billion going to the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that local law enforcement needed a substantial amount of that money, plus a national plan.
One official complained that President Bush had never met with police chiefs. "There's a war on the streets and the President doesn't meet with us. The federal government has given up on us," he said.
The official also indicated that the feds "came up with a remarkable solution 10 years ago — to send money to locals to take care of crime — but now they've given up on that," referring to the COPS program, launched during the Clinton administration. COPS aimed to send money to states and local entities to hire, train and equip police officers. The goal was to get 100,000 police on the street.
McNulty seemed taken aback, but said he understood very well how significant that funding had been.
"You say there's less police on the streets than before 9/11. That's an important thing to know," McNulty noted.
Bill Bratton, Police Chief of Los Angeles, then noted that the surge in crime has a new and troubling element — it's largely driven by young people who are disassociated from mainstream America. Bratton advised McNulty to relay that message to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and to President Bush and Congress. Bratton said the COPS program had "gotten it right" and asked for the federal government's involvement anew.
"Homeland security has become the monster that ate criminal justice!" Springfield, Mass., Police Commissioner Edward Flynn added.
The COPS grants have disappeared, but there's no single guilty party, Flynn lamented. What's gradually happened, he said, is that "we've got a zero-sum game.
"Doing our core mission, we can be more effective homeland security partners. But if we are overwhelmed with our core mission, we can't be good homeland security partners," Flynn said. But he added that there can't be a "forced choice" between homeland security and criminal justice "resulting in more dead bodies."