New York’s mayor and police commissioner ripped Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday for a Justice Department statement declaring that their city was soft on crime and plagued by gang murders.
The war of words arose from an ongoing dispute between the Trump administration and many large U.S. cities over immigration policy, but Friday’s fireworks were remarkable in that the leader of the largest police force in the country publicly denounced the attorney general, the nation’s top law enforcement official.
The Justice Department — in threatening to withhold millions of dollars in grant money from the New York Police Department if the city doesn’t change its policy and turn over suspected illegal immigrants in custody to immigration agents — said in a news release that New York “continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city’s ‘soft on crime’ stance.”
“Many of these jurisdictions are also crumbling under the weight of illegal immigration and violent crime,” the news release said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) called that statement “outrageous,” given the city’s record-low crime figures, which are part of a decades-long trend in falling crime that began in the early 1990s.
“Attorney General Sessions is supposed to be the leading law enforcement official in America,” he said. “Why would he insult the men and women who do this work every day, put their lives on the line in order to achieve so much? I would say to President Trump, and to Attorney General Sessions, if you believe this statement is accurate, come here to New York City, look our police officers in the eye and tell them that you believe they are soft on crime. See how that feels. See what the people of New York City will say about that.”
New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill called the Justice Department’s criticism “incredibly insulting” and said there are piles of data to prove that the city is anything but soft on crime.
“When I read that statement by DOJ this afternoon, my blood began to boil,” O’Neill said.
The Justice Department is threatening to withhold grant money from New York if it doesn’t change its policy toward illegal immigrants. The grants are called Byrne grants, named after an NYPD officer, Eddie Byrne, who was killed by drug dealers in 1988 as he guarded a witness’s house. The year of Byrne’s murder, there were nearly 2,000 homicides in New York. Last year, there were 335.
At a news conference late in the day, Sessions deviated from prepared remarks to take another dig at the city. Originally slated to say, “California is no stranger to transnational gangs,” he added, “and neither is New York.”
Later, though, he heaped praise on the city for policies that had reduced crime and said officials merely had to be careful in “altering those highly successful policies.”
“I would say this about New York. New York has done some great things in criminal justice, they are following policies that have proven to reduce crime in America,” Sessions said. “We have a disagreement with the mayor over sanctuary city policies. I strongly disagree with his ideas on that.”
Around the same time, the Justice Department issued a second statement saying it was making a distinction between New York City’s policies and the work of the NYPD.
“Unfortunately, the Mayor’s policies are hamstringing the brave NYPD officers that protect the city, and only serve to endanger the lives of the hard working men and women of the NYPD who care more about keeping their city and country safe than they do about city hall politics,” the statement said.
New York, of course, was not the only place to find itself at odds with Sessions.
California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (D) said that Sessions was basing his enforcement policies “on principles of white supremacy.” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D) quipped that if the administration would “actually do some research before firing off” threats, it would have seen there was no need to target New Orleans.