Steve Lewis: Violent crime.
The spike in violent crime has been felt in cities and towns throughout the country. But what can be done?
On this episode of Inside the FBI, Michael Kulstad sits down with FBI Executive Assistant Director Brian Turner to talk about the violent crime, why it’s on an increase, and what the FBI is doing about it.
I’m Steve Lewis, and this is Inside the FBI.
Mike Kulstad: In today's Inside the FBI Podcast, we're talking violent crime, and we've invited Brian Turner to be a part of that discussion. Mr. Turner is the FBI's Executive Assistant Director for the Bureau's Criminal Cyber Response and Services Branch.
He's now approaching 20 years with the FBI, starting in Philadelphia, doing violent crime and white-collar work. He's had a number of positions since then, and we'll talk about those today. Also a veteran of the U.S. Army and a graduate of West Point.
Mr. Turner, welcome to the podcast.
Turner: Thanks for having me today, Mike.
Kulstad: Before we get started in talking, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and how you got to where you are and what your job is at the FBI.
Turner: Well, I'm born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I left there in '86 to join the Army. While I was in the Army, enlisted, I had an opportunity to go to West Point, and that's where I went and completed my collegiate studies.
Served in Army for about 10 years. On the tail-end of those 10 years, I was serving as faculty at West Point, which, I had the opportunity to meet a reservist who was an FBI agent and got me interested in the FBI. I started the application process in '99 and was able to join the FBI in April of 2002.
Kulstad: Almost 20 years, then.
Turner: Almost 20 years.
Kulstad: We're talking violent crime today, and that's something that affects everyone, no matter the country, what part of the country you are, neighborhoods, states—doesn't really matter.
There was a report that came out in, I think it was September. It was called Crime in the United States in 2020, and it had some interesting things.
It, for the first time in about four years, it estimated that the number of violent crimes increased when compared to the previous year. Violent crime, up about 5.6%, while property crime declined a little bit.
But I think the biggest takeaway was the number of murders in the U.S. That jumped by about 30% in 2020, compared to the previous year.
Let's talk about numbers, and what do those numbers tell you? And what do you see from your desk, and what concerns you?
Turner: Well, Mike, what I'd like to do, first of all, is put a little bit of a context on answering this question. First, you know, as I mentioned, I'm from Chicago. I was born and raised in the inner city, on the South Side.
And one recollection that I have, as I kind of think about your question, is my upbringing in that part of the city. This was in the late '70s, early '80s, where gang activity was rampant. People were shot and killed. And as a kid, going to school, trying to play outside like every other kid, those factors were always out there, when I went out to decide what I was gonna do during that day.
As I think about these numbers, those kinda come back to—they have a personal attachment to myself, because it sometimes shoots me back to those days, and it gives me a little bit of empathy, maybe a significant amount of empathy, for all of those citizens out there that are living in fear of these numbers.
Now, that being said, to kind of explain some of the numbers, you know, like a lot of things that we're dealing with today, there has been some impact from COVID, right? There's some COVID-related impacts on this.
To name a few, you know, a lot of folks have not been going to work for a significant amount of time. And with that, you know, there's a, you know, a thought pattern out there that has contributed to it. People are at home. They have more time to do things and that kind of breeds the ground for potential criminal activity.
Additionally, the COVID phenomenon has actually hit our court system pretty well, too, at the state, local, and federal levels. And, consequently, there've been a lot of backlogs. There've been a lot of suspensions of court proceedings.
Consequently, people who are violent offenders, while they're waiting their time to go in court, potentially, are out there in the street, available to commit more acts of violence. And then, lastly, you know, with that particular piece, early releases and more juveniles, who are not going to school because COVID limited the...
Kulstad: More time at home.
Turner: More time at home.
Turner: So you have all these folks, these impressionable young people who are maybe prone to being sucked into the criminal dynamic. You just have more actors out there that are contributing to this increased rate.
Secondly, there's a challenge out there that we have been undertaking since last year with the violent protests on the other side of the George Floyd protest. The brand of law enforcement in the United States has been a challenge for some time. And what I mean by that is, giving law enforcement agencies—to include state, local, federal agencies, such as the FBI—an ability to effectively recruit and hire quality candidates. Those numbers have been impacted by some of these challenges that I just mentioned to you.
But, that being said, it doesn't mean that we're gonna walk away from addressing violent crime. One of the things I wanna, you know, really push to you is the importance of working together.
Turner: Working together, not only within the law enforcement community with local leadership, elected officials, but also the community. We’re really gonna have to put more of an emphasis that on that to compensate for some of these issues that I just mentioned.
Kulstad: So, broad brushstroke of sort of the way you see the problem.
At your desk at FBI Headquarters, which is obviously certainly a long way away from the streets of South Side Chicago.
Kulstad: What do you see on a daily basis? What keeps you up at night, as the phrase is? What concerns you?
Turner: Well, there're a lot of factors out there, Mike, that we have identified to contribute to violent crime. To name a few, gangs and gang rivalries that exist throughout the country. And it’s not just, contrary to popular belief, not just within cities—there's a lot of that gang violence that exists in rural areas of the United States.
Kulstad: Is that getting worse? Is it getting better? Or is it just changing?
Turner: It's just changing. I think, you know, something to be said, a lot of violent offenders, gang members. I remember a practice that took place when I was a child in Chicago. If you were a known gang member, and rival gang members were coming after you, your family usually sent you to the South to get away from places like Chicago and Detroit.
Well, if that practice happens by more and more families over time, then those folks are gonna go to rural areas and continue to do what they've been doing, and I think that's one of the things that we have to contend with.
We still have the existence of organized, you know, criminal entities. You know, it could be, you know, Italian organized crime. It could be outlaw motorcycle gangs. These entities contribute to, you know, actors that may go out and commit acts of violence on behalf of their criminal priorities.
Thirdly, human trafficking. People have dismissed this as, you know, pimps out on the street, but it's more than that. It's actually a huge money maker. And criminals have used violent means to protect the money that is generated by, you know, that type of criminal activity.
Last, but not least, is the access to guns. Access to firearms, across the board, has been a lot easier, as it probably always has been in that regard.
So, those are the things that we have that concern me. But, with that, you know, we're seeing an increase of shootings. I don't want to say mass shootings, because mass shootings can be attributed to different types of reasons, but just shootings in general. When you look at the high amount, a number of homicides that take place in cities like Chicago, you have acts of violence that are driven by, you know, crimes against children or hate crimes. And, recently, a number of these violent acts have been committed basically by, you know, individuals just having a disagreement. And it manifests in the workplace or it manifests in the school setting.
Kulstad: So as before, if you and I had a disagreement and, you know, would duke it out outside, folks now have an access to a firearm, and it escalates that.
Turner: Correct, correct. So, you said going back in the day, when we were younger, you know, you get in a fist fight, you lose, you figure it out. But, you know, some young people, or other people, or even short of that, something that can even affect any of us—you drive into work one day and you get a degree of road rage. We've had road rage incidences that have taken place that resulted in shooting, so it is hitting all aspects of our life.
And then, also people have gotten quickly upset over social media. You have a social media exchange and you feel like someone's disrespected you. Again, there have been acts of violence attributed to those exchanges.
So, you asked me what keeps me up at night, right? And so, if this problem becomes so pervasive, and so intertwined with our society, there's a ripple effect that takes place. And one of those ripple effects is that, if a gang entity that is unchecked in a rural part of the United States or an urban setting, those law-abiding citizens, you know, who are in those communities that are just trying to go to the store and shop, let their kids play in the parks that they have in the community, go to the swimming pool—they're gonna be hesitant because, if there's rampant shooting on the streets—which has happened, and innocent people have been shot—then those folks are gonna tend to not go out, shop. They're not gonna have their kids playing out, and then those communities are going to ultimately suffer. Having an impact like that on a community, similar to the one I grew up in, does keep me up at night.
Kulstad: All right. So, you've talked to me about the problems. What's the solution? What are we doing about it?
Turner: So, that’s a great question, and, you know, the FBI is doing a lot.
I want to say, first and foremost, we're not doing this individually. We're doing this, as I said before—I mentioned the importance of partnerships, and I'm gonna touch on that as I respond to that.
We do have an initiative that we have been working pretty aggressively since last year. We actually put it into play this past summer. It's the use of a Violent Crime Rapid Deployment Team. And what that essentially is, Mike, is Criminal Investigative Division here, you know, drives and coordinates the surge of investigative and operational intel resources to strategic locations throughout the United States where there's a spike in crime and that particular municipality needs assistance.
I'll give you one example of that, because we actually had a recent success of that, in the city of Buffalo. Buffalo had a surge, like many cities in the United States, a surge of homicides taking place. So, this past June, we utilized our Violent Crime Rapid Deployment Team, surged resources, supervisors here, agents from elsewhere, intel bodies, to work closely with the Buffalo Police Department—combining our assets, our personnel, our intelligence, to name a few—and was able, over a 90- to 120-day period, to cut down homicides—though it was a small snapshot—roughly about 50%. That was actually a press release that was generated by the U.S. Attorney's Office there. So that was an immediate win for that effort.
But, additionally, we are actually using that model to hit roughly seven other cities throughout the country, to name a few. They're not necessarily the cities that we have attributed to the mass violence that's taken place, such as Chicago.
Turner: But what we figured out is this, that a city like Milwaukee, which is one of the seven cities we're looking at, Milwaukee is in pretty close proximity to Chicago, geographically. So, we're finding ways to connect, you know, violent offenders up there and maybe get some intelligence out of what's going on in that city and trace it back to Chicago.
Get that information, intelligence to Chicago, perhaps even strengthen up or advance some investigative efforts by the Chicago FBI, there, amongst the other law enforcement agencies, definitely Chicago PD, to probably make them better postured to address some of the violence, because, historically, just sending bodies out and arresting our way out of it, that is not gonna work.
Kulstad: What are the other cities? You mentioned Milwaukee. Can you share the other cities?
Turner: Yes. We have Atlanta; Columbia, South Carolina; Dallas; Memphis, Tennessee; Louisville; and Phoenix.
Kulstad: All different parts of the country. I'm sure one of the challenges, here, is the violent crime is different, right, in each one of those cities, that what it may look like in Milwaukee is gonna look different in Phoenix, different, you know, even by community by community.
Kulstad: Talk about those challenges and how you address them.
Turner: Right. That’s a great question, Mike. So, you know, the differences usually are, kind of anchored within the numbers, right?
So, you'll see Chicago will have roughly 500 murders a year in the city. You compare that to a city nearby, like Indianapolis, that may have historically had, let's say, for example, 20 murders. But then, in this particular timeframe, they shot up to 40 murders. That, in comparison to Chicago, numerically, may be somewhat different, because we say they're less numbers.
But, what we're talking about, the common issue there, is the impact on the community, because the citizens in Indianapolis will know that there's an increase of violent crime murders in the city, and, like the citizens in Chicago, they're gonna be as fearful of their communities, whether it's 500 murders or a surge of 20 murders. We have both cases where the citizens of those communities are gonna be fearful. That's what we have to really lock in on.
Kulstad: You know, over this summer, the attorney general announced a comprehensive violent crime reduction strategy. What was the FBI's role in that? What'd we do, and what did we see so far? Has it been working?
Turner: Yes. So, Attorney General Merrick Garland did come out with a violent crime initiative. It was a memorandum that really postured the FBI as part of a bigger picture, utilizing the Department of Justice resources to address the violent crime issues.
As you know, the FBI is one of a number of agencies within DOJ, to include ATF, DEA, and U.S. Marshals. So, really, the impetus behind that memorandum was not only to do the things that you and I have talked about, so far, already, you know—making connections with the community, working together as partners, really kinda pushing a stronger prosecution posture—but, utilizing some of the unique capabilities and toolsets that the various DOJ entities bring to the table.
For example, the FBI, we're really, you know, experienced with, you know, criminal enterprise investigations, bringing everything together to disrupt and dismantle criminal organizations, which I'll address later on.
But, the ATF, you know, their unique expertise, as far as the tracing of firearms—they're embedded with a lot of the homicide units of local PDs throughout the United States.
The U.S. Marshals Service, you know, putting it at the top of their priority list and looking for fugitives. Those fugitives, who are associated with violent acts, aggregated assault, you know, attempted murder, or murder.
And then, DEA, utilizing their authorities to target violent gangs who utilize drug trafficking to fund and obtain weapons and doing all the other things that they do in the community. So, just trying to bring that all together.
Kulstad: Anecdotally, are we seeing successes?
Turner: Yeah, we're seeing successes. But I think there's more to be done. I think I referenced to you before about the importance of partnerships amongst law enforcement agencies. But also building that dynamic of trust between law enforcement agencies in the communities. I think that's something that we really want to push hard these days.
Kulstad: You, know, and it's not a matter of just sending the resources, right. We're sending intelligence analysts. So focusing more than just folks with badges and guns. Right?
Kulstad: Let's talk about those efforts.
Turner: So, like I said, you know, part of the violent crime rapid initiative was to go out there and get, you know, not only bringing the investigative bodies out, but also, like you alluded to, other resources, particularly the intelligence piece. As you know, intelligence analysts, and even the tactical versions of those, SOSs, are instrumental in helping investigators connect the dots, so to speak.
So, if you would take a region of the country that's around a place like Chicago and identify all those other cities in that area, we can push that all the way out to Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, right. And then, look at whether or not, when we are conducting investigations in those cities, really pushing that collaboration, not only amongst the FBI's investigative bodies, but between those local and state law enforcement agencies.
I think that's what we bring to the table of creating that culture of sharing information, of comparing notes, because, in some cases, you know, an offender in Chicago that commits a murder, the history has proven that that individual will travel, basically, to another city to kind of get out and let the weather cool a little bit for them.
So, where do they go? They go to cities that may have relatives of theirs, the Milwaukees, the Minneapolises, the Indianapolises. And then, sometimes habits, they don't die. So, they'll sit down there for a number of years and start to do the same thing that they've been doing before.
Kulstad: And this—you and I had talked earlier. This is not necessarily about just putting folks in cuffs and getting a number. Right?
Turner: Absolutely not.
Kulstad: This is about more of a dismantling strategy. Correct?
Turner: Correct. And so, you know, that was, I want to make another reference back to the attorney general's violent crime reduction strategy, because part of that is also to make sure that our federal prosecutors, who bring stiffer sentencing penalties to the table, are part of that effort, that we're building the strongest cases that will allow us to get these violent offenders.
First and foremost, going back to what you said before with the intel folks, our intel resources that we bring to the table and work with our counterparts, in those other agencies, will help us quickly identify who those most violent offenders are, right?
Turner: Who are the ones that are not only shooting, but who are the ones that are actually out there, providing those guns? Are there straw purchasers out there? In other words, people who are using their name to purchase a gun for a known criminal who, by law, is not allowed to have one. So, that's the approach that we're taking when we bring these cases, you know, to the prosecutors.
But the disruption and dismantling piece, I want to, kind of, hit on that. So, just to clarify, for those people who don't know the difference between the two. So, when we disrupt a criminal entity, so, let's say we know that a drug gang has been using a known stash house to store drugs and guns in there, and we target that house. We go in there. We get the probable cause. We can swear out a search warrant. We execute the search warrant. It's done safely, right.
And then once we have executed that, and we execute that warrant, we found a bunch of drugs and bunch of guns. Okay, well the impact on that is not just a seizure, but it has had a negative impact on that gang because, now, because they've loss use of those drugs and guns, they don't have the ability to make the money that they were trying to make. They don't have the ability to commit acts of violence that they planned on doing. So, now, they have to reinvent themselves. They have to do a reset. So, that's what a disruption would be.
Now, the optimal thing for all of us, the goal would be that of dismantlement, where we target the key leaders through use of our intel folks. We identify those key leaders in which that criminal entity operates around, and we target them. And when we target them, we build the case against them.
And once that case is so strong, and we execute those arrest warrants, and maybe even any related search warrants that would help strengthen the evidence against them, we're postured to put them away for a long time. And, because of that, and those key leaders are out of the pocket, more likely than not, that criminal entity is now going to be dismantled, because they have, they're a rudderless ship. And what we know of that criminal enterprise or that gang or that criminal entity is no more.
Kulstad: You mentioned, in our conversation, partnerships, and you mentioned that a few times. Talk about that. And what's not just a partnership with the FBI and, you know, a different law enforcement agency, right? Talk about that a little bit.
Turner: So, yeah, the partnerships are, kind of, multi-level. You know, most of our partnerships are focused as far as our ability to execute our mission, which is to protect the American people, uphold the Constitution, yeah, it really relies a lot on the majority of working with other agencies.
But it's not necessarily just law enforcement agencies, right. It's the relationships. It's how effective the FBI is able to push its brand out to the public because, you know, first and foremost, we cannot do our job as a law enforcement agency without the trust and support of the American people, because they're the ones who have the most set of eyes. They're the ones that are going to see those things that we cannot see. Some of our more braver citizens are gonna come up and even assist in that, providing us that information, giving us that insight to help point us in the right direction, to either confirm something to be the case or not.
And then, also, building a relationship with community leaders, right. It may be a religious leader. It may be somebody from a cultural organization. But having those relationships and the strength of those relationships are also going to be enablers to allow us to get stronger trust from those communities, because there's some communities out there who may feel that they don't have trust for law enforcement. Some of these folks may be first-generation Americans. They came from a country that didn't trust law enforcement. We have to work through that.
Kulstad: And that is a concern across the country. We have seen violence against law enforcement uptick. I think deaths against law enforcement officers are up 50% from last year. There is a trust issue there. Talk about that a little bit and how we fix that.
Turner: Yeah, that's a great question, Mike. I know it's high on our radar screen, as a law enforcement community, to be aware of that. I guess, you know, the backdrop on that is, you know, at the state, local, and federal level, there's been an uptick of violent acts, fatal shootings of law enforcement officers who were swearing out, you know, search warrants or executing search warrants or executing arrest warrants, or for those uniformed officers out there executing, you know, vehicle stops that may even be supporting existing FBI investigations, to name a few. That puts them in harm's way. And so we must be wary of that in ensuring that when we are going out to execute those type of operations, that every measure is taken in place to make sure we're mitigating those threats. But it is something that is more prevalent than it has been in the past.
Kulstad: In the time we have left, we've talked about the problem, we've talked about what we're doing. And now, I guess, look in the future.
What does success look like? What do you hope the picture looks like in the next six months, in the next year? Talk about that.
Turner: As we've been going through this discussion, Mike, I've been kind of thinking about my days when I was back in Chicago, a long time ago, but back then. But I think that memory, kind of, brings to light, what success would look for all of us—to is, those individuals in those communities that may be poor, you know, it doesn't mean that they have to be living in an environment of violence.
So, what right looks like to me is that unnamed, you know, old lady in that neighborhood, elderly lady is allowed to walk to the store on her own, you know, without worrying about if she's going to get caught in gunfire. That a single mom in that same community is able to take her kids and drop them off at the local park while she goes down the street to run a few errands. That a young man who has aspirations of getting out of his situation is going to go and play basketball to the best of his ability, because that may be the way for him to get a scholarship in college. If we're able to allow those three entities to do that, that would be definitely success for us, on all fronts.
Kulstad: A conversation to be continued, and we'd love to invite you back.
Kulstad: Brian Turner, thanks for the time.
Turner: Thank you, Mike. Have a good day.
Lewis: Our thanks to Executive Assistant Director Brian Turner for sitting down with us.
If you’d like to know more about the FBI’s effort to fight violent crime, visit fbi.gov/violentcrime.
This has been another production of Inside the FBI. You can follow us on your favorite podcast player, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. You can also subscribe to email alerts about new episodes at fbi.gov/podcasts.
I’m Steve Lewis from the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for tuning in.