More federal prosecutors will be used in a crackdown on gun and violent crime and drug trafficking in one West Virginia city.
The number of prosecutors focusing on those cases in Huntington will be doubled immediately and tripled within weeks, U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart said Thursday. He didn't provide specific numbers.
Stuart said the goal of the Project Huntington initiative is to make West Virginia's second-largest city the safest one in America. The effort will be led by assistant U.S. attorney Monica Coleman.
"The instructions to my team could not be more clear — put violent criminals behind bars, off the streets and in prison as long as possible," Stuart said.
Speaking at a news conference along with Huntington interim Police Chief Hank Dial and Mayor Steve Williams, Stuart said "this is about teamwork."
The city of Huntington, population 48,000, had a record 19 homicides last year, up from three in 2015.
"I can't say enough about how excited I am about the partnership and the solutions that this is going to create," Dial said.
Dial said existing efforts to slow down violent crimes in Huntington already appear to be working - there's been a 27 percent reduction in such arrests in the first two months of this year compared to the same period of a year ago.
Last year U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed federal prosecutors to bring the toughest charges possible against most crime suspects. The move was a reversal of Obama-era policies and was assailed by critics as a return to failed drug-war policies that unduly affected minorities and filled prisons with nonviolent offenders.
Sessions also announced last year that federal prosecutors would be added in West Virginia's southern district and other areas of the country ravaged by addition to focus exclusively on investigating health care fraud and opioid scams that are fueling the nation's drug abuse epidemic.
In addition, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has established a new field office in Louisville, Kentucky, to oversee opioid abuse investigations in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Cabell County has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic - on one day in August 2016, more than two people in Huntington overdosed on heroin during a five-hour span. In November, the sheriff's office had its largest-ever drug seizure at a Huntington residence. West Virginia leads the nation by far in the rate of drug overdose deaths.
Williams said drug dealers must be stopped before reaching Huntington.
"This is a complex issue," he said. "People are suffering from addiction and there are so many things that we have to do. We have to have prevention and intervention, we absolutely have to have treatment. But make no mistake about it. We have to have law enforcement."