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Barr claims DOJ program intended to combat violence was derailed by pandemic

Attorney General William Barr participates in a law enforcement briefing on the MS-13 gang with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, July 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

(CNN) — Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday that the Justice Department was pursuing a program to combat an uptick of violence in US cities prior to the coronavirus pandemic, but it was derailed as the virus took hold in the US.

Barr said the department was trying to stop the violence before it got to “the level it got to most recently” after protests of the death of George Floyd.

The comments came on the same day acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf similarly addressed the civil unrest that ensued following the police killing of Floyd and other African Americans, saying his department is focused on “resisting” the unrest that is “gripping” cities across the country.

Speaking at a news conference in Chicago, Barr said his department “tried to launch a program called ‘Relentless Pursuit,’ and then the Covid hit almost at the same time we were mobilizing the agents to go into the cities so that program was effectively aborted.”

“In the meantime, with the incident with George Floyd, and the attacks on the police, and the demonization of the police, and discussions of defunding, we saw sharp increases (in) a number of cities, including Chicago,” Barr said. “And so at that point, we essentially rebooted the idea of targeting various cities and targeting the increases in violent crime and sort of tailored it to the phenomenon we were seeing in the wake of the defund the police effort.”

The comments from both officials are likely to be met with approval from President Donald Trump, who in recent weeks has sought to center his reelection bid around the theme of “law and order” in an apparent effort to shore up support from voters concerned with the wave of racial justice and anti-police protests that swept the nation this summer and at times turned violent.

“Let me be clear, those who seek to undermine our democratic institutions, indiscriminately destroy businesses, and attack law enforcement officers and fellow citizens are a threat to the homeland,” Wolf said while delivering a “State of the Homeland Address.”

The acting secretary said during his wide-ranging speech that the department has experienced these attacks in Portland, Oregon, “where violent opportunists repeatedly targeted and attempted to burn down a federal courthouse — the seat of justice in downtown Portland.”

Wolf reiterated that the department “shall” protect federal buildings, grounds and property, and bashed Portland, claiming the city did not cooperate with federal authorities.

In late July, the Trump administration reached an agreement with Oregon’s Democratic governor to withdraw federal officers from downtown Portland, though DHS said it will maintain a presence in the city until it believes federal locations there are secure. Trump and Wolf said federal agents were first sent there to protect a federal courthouse in the city’s downtown that has been a focal point for protesters, but the officers had also clashed with demonstrators.

Trump also announced in July that he will “surge” federal law enforcement officers to Chicago and other American cities, despite resistance from local leaders, in order to tamp down on “heinous crimes of violence.”

Barr said at the time that there were about 200 federal agents dispatched as part of the program to Kansas City, and said a comparable number was heading to Chicago to augment existing teams already there. He also said 35 agents would go to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and that other cities would be added later.

The comments from Barr, who on Wednesday lamented the fact that “too many people in too many cities insist on denigrating, demonizing, defunding police,” also come a week after he broadly defended the actions of police in an exclusive interview with CNN, saying shootings of Black Americans often weren’t racially motivated and weren’t as common as public demonstrations have made them seem.

“I don’t think there are two justice systems,” Barr said in an interview on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” “I think the narrative that the police are in some epidemic of shooting unarmed black men is simply a false narrative and also the narrative that’s based on race.” He acknowledged, however, that at times it created different situations for Black and White Americans.

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