In a private call with federal prosecutors across the country, Attorney General William Barr’s message was clear: Aggressively go after rioters.
Barr pushed his U.S. attorneys to bring federal charges whenever they could, even if a defendant could be tried instead in state court, according to officials with knowledge of last week’s call who were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
The Trump administration’s crackdown has already led to more than 300 arrests on federal crimes in the riots since the death of George Floyd.
During the call with U.S. attorneys, Barr raised the prospect that prosecutors could bring a number of other potential charges in unrest cases, including the rarely used sedition statute, according to the officials familiar with the call.
Federal involvement in local cases is nothing new. Officials across the country have turned to the Justice Department for decades, particularly for violent crime and gang cases in which offenders could face much stiffer federal penalties and there is no parole.
Police chiefs in several cities have pointed to the importance of their relationships with federal prosecutors to bring charges that can result in long prison sentences to drive down violent crime.
Even before the unrest this year, the Justice Department was stepping in to bring charges in states where the government believes justice is not being fully pursued by local prosecutors.
In January, for example, the department brought federal charges against a woman accused of slapping three Orthodox Jewish women in one of several apparently anti-Semitic attacks reported throughout New York during Hanukkah.
While many local prosecutors have dismissed dozens of protest-related arrests, some are still coming down hard.
A Pennsylvania judge set bail at $1 million for about a dozen people in a protest that followed the death of a knife-wielding man by police.
Even some Democrats, including District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, have called for the Justice Department to pursue federal charges against violent agitators, going as far as accusing the administration of declining to prosecute rioters.
About one-third of the federal riot cases are in Portland, for crimes such as assaulting a deputy U.S. marshal with a baseball bat, lighting fires and setting off explosives at the federal courthouse and throwing rocks at officers.
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