NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty are urging President Joe Biden to tackle what they call a national crime epidemic, citing as prime examples last week's "shocking and tragic episodes" in Memphis, where three people died and three others were wounded in a one-man shooting spree while in a second case a school teacher was abducted and later found dead.
In their letter to Biden, the senators wrote cases of violent crime in Memphis are "symptomatic of a rise in violent crime across the country that demands decisive federal law enforcement action."
"A clear cause of this undeniable deterioration of public safety is the anti-law-enforcement movement that has wrought soft-on-crime policies -- from the eradication of bail and pretrial detention to prosecutors declining to prosecute or seek jail time for serious crimes -- as well as emboldened criminals who are often quickly returned to the streets," the senators wrote. "Importantly, support for this sentiment by certain leaders at the highest levels of our government has led to restraints on and attrition within law enforcement."
The senators also held a Senate news conference where they unveiled a new bill, titled the "Restoring Law and Order Act." They were joined several other Republicans who sought to blame Biden and congressional Democrats.
A Biden press official did not immediately respond to a Chattanooga Times Free Press email request for comment on Wednesday.
The Republican senators are specifically calling for more funding for local and state police and providing resources for quicker processing of rape kits among other things.
Rape-kit processing has been an issue in this month's slaying of Memphis school teacher and jogger Eliza Fletcher. Police have charged Cleotha Henderson, 38, whose lengthy juvenile record culminated with a kidnapping conviction involving an attorney where Henderson served 20 years of a 24-year sentence. Henderson was a suspect in a 2021 kidnapping and sexual assault, but his DNA was only processed recently, the Commercial Appeal of Memphis recently reported.
A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokesman confirmed to the newspaper the agency received the sexual assault kit September 23, 2021. But the evidence was placed in a "queue of unknown assailant kits, as no request was made for TBI analysis to be expedited, and no suspect information or DNA standard was included in the submission," the newspaper reported being told.
Another component to Hagerty and Blackburn's Restoring Law and Order Act requires the federal General Accountability Office to study what is happening with rape kits.
"Why is it taking so long to get these processed when it is a violent crime?" Blackburn said during the Wednesday news conference. "Why does it take so long to get these returned to law enforcement so that they are able to apprehend these criminals? We need to increase resources for law enforcement, root out weak-on-crime prosecutors and judges, and keep violent criminals locked up.
"If you do the crime, it is imperative that you serve the time," Blackburn said.
Hagerty said at the news conference, which was livestreamed, that "the American public has had enough. The crime wave rolling across our country is tragic" with the city of Memphis reaching a record high this year.
"We've had an administration that prioritizes anything but crime," Hagerty said, later adding, "we've got to turn away from the sort of weak on crime tone."
The other Memphis shooting resulting in the three deaths and wounding of three others resulted in the arrest of Ezekiel Kelly, 19. He faces one count of first-degree murder, but more charges are expected. Kelly allegedly livestreamed parts of the shooting spree.
Prior to that, Kelly had been released from prison after serving 11 months of a three-year sentence for aggravated assault.
Tennessee's two top legislative leaders, state House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker from Oak Ridge, say they intend to bring more legislation come January to follow up on their 2022 "Truth in Sentencing" bill that required persons convicted of eight violent felony crimes to serve 100% of their judge or jury-imposed sentences.
It also requires persons convicted of a number of other violent felony offenses to serve 85% of their sentences.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican who has pressed criminal justice for some nonviolent offenders, refused to sign the Truth in Sentencing. It became law without his signature.
In their letter to the president, Hagerty and Blackburn said "at a minimum, your administration should immediately take" several actions.
* The Department of Justice should maximize the resources devoted to prosecuting felons in possession of firearms under 18 USC 922(g) and fully utilize the Armed Career Act, 18 USC 924(e) and the 15-year mandatory minimum sentences it carries, including by hiring more Assistant United States Attorneys dedicated to prosecuting these cases.
"This is a critical means of getting dangerous, repeat offenders off the streets, and more prosecutors would make a huge difference in Memphis, according to city officials, by allowing the local U.S. Attorney's Office to prosecute more of the many federal firearms offenses that occur there each year," the lawmakers wrote.
* The U.S Department of Justice, the senators said, should revive Operation Legend, which was initiated by the Trump administration in 2020 and named for a 4-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a stray bullet in Kansas City. The program deployed federal law enforcement officers in nine major American cities to help state and local law enforcement partners combat violent crime. Blackburn and Hagerty say that from July to December 2020 under the program, more than 6,000 arrests were made, including about 470 in connection with homicides, as well as more than 2,600 illegal firearms seized and over 17 kilos for fentanyl seize.
They said in Memphis, the operation resulted in 266 arrests with 124 individuals charged with federal crimes of violence or narcotics.
* The senators said the federal government should also provide "substantial federal grant funding" to state and local jurisdictions that "must be used "to hire more law enforcement officers and provide retention bonuses to officers involved in fighting violent crime.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.