Reno Takes New Tack on Youth Violence

After years of resentment of federal agents, some local police chiefs sense a new attitude from the Justice Department: respect

THE latest initiative against violent crime from the Clinton administration grows directly out of Attorney General Janet Reno's long experience in Miami as a local prosecutor.

She watched federal law-enforcement agencies make separate decisions from Washington, ``watched the [Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)] do one thing and the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] do another,'' when she ``sorely needed assistance'' on problems best understood locally, Ms. Reno says.

On Tuesday, she announced a new arrangement aimed at youth and gang violence. She is directing United States Attorneys to each appoint a coordinator and set up working groups for federal agents, local police, and prosecutors to set local crime priorities and pool efforts.

At least some police officers believe the Justice Department's new emphasis could help with the kind of crime the public is most concerned about. Federal agencies like the DEA often have intelligence on drug dealers and gangs that would be invaluable to local police, who may know little about crime groups outside their jurisdictions.

``One of my most serious problems is robberies by young people,'' says Sylvester Daughtry, police chief of Greensboro, N.C., and International Association of Chiefs of Police president. ``I would love to have some help in that regard'' and with homicides.

In 25 years as a police officer, Chief Daughtry says, ``This is the most significant effort by the federal government to work with local government in memory.''

Past efforts have usually taken the form of task forces against organized crime, drugs, or pornography, where most decisions have been made in Washington.

Against a deep tradition of resentment of federal agents by local law enforcement, some police chiefs are picking up a new breeze from Washington of respect for local cops on the front line of the war against violence.

Bruce Chamberlin, Cheektowaga, N.Y., police chief, had to deal with a bureaucratic salad of federal agencies last fall after a series of bombings aimed at members of a local family. He was impressed by the smooth orchestration and tone Reno set. She called the local US Attorney shortly after the bombings to ask how Washington could help.

``It went through this building that the Attorney General called,'' he said, and helped set a tone of respect for the local effort. She also stresses the primary importance in the anticrime effort of the street patrol officer, Mr. Chamberlin says.

Most signals coming from the Clinton administration on crime are not so clear.

The White House directs the legislative agenda and proposes to give the public what it wants - more prison space, more police, and stiffer sentences. The Brady Law, enacting five-day waiting periods and background checks for handgun purchases, took effect Monday. That day, the Treasury Department announced new regulations that require fingerprinting and photographing of purchasers of semi-automatic shotguns, so-called ``streetsweepers.''

Meanwhile, Reno's keenest passions, as in her days as a state prosecutor, are the roots of crime in early childhood.

Few question the legitimacy of her concern for crime-fighting's ``softer'' side. But it falls outside Justice's main business of law enforcement. Some of her top aides in Miami recall frustration at her focus on children when, they argued, they had to deal with 15-year-olds who had already committed serious crimes.

She has embraced the administration's crime bill, including the ``three strikes and you're out'' provision to lock up three-time violent offenders for life. But no one who watches Justice closely believes her heart is in it.

They have trouble identifying any clear direction under Reno's leadership yet, although the latest antiviolence initiative begins to establish a minor theme. ``Everything is very ad hoc,'' says one former senior official there. ``I think they're working it out.''

One problem, the former official says, is that no one is running the department. Reno's strongest interests are out of the law-enforcement mainstream, and she works without a chief of staff. She pursues details tenaciously to the point of embarrassment of some staff members in long meetings, but the details often are not on main department business.

Reno is very good at ``showing the flag'' and being a presence at Justice and in the field. She is accessible and eats in the employees' cafeteria, but ``she doesn't spend a whole lot of time working on matters of substance with line people,'' the former official says.

The deputy attorney general who recently resigned over management-style differences with Reno, Philip Heymann, was ``very bright and a good policy person,'' the former official says, ``but a horrible administrator.''

But Stuart Gerson, a Bush appointee who was acting attorney general in the first months of the Clinton administration, says supporting local efforts at controlling guns and community policing are the most important things Justice can do.

The latest initiative, he says, ``is a step in that direction.''

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