U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions told the country's law enforcement officials Saturday that their work is a "noble and high calling" and promised to work with them to target the most violent offenders and help reduce crime.
Sessions made his remarks in Center City at one of the world's largest police conferences, which drew a raucous protest that lasted several hours. Anticipating demonstrations, an increased police presence was evident outside the Convention Center on Saturday morning.
A noon rally by Philly for REAL Justice had drawn close to 40 peaceful protesters, shutting down the intersection of 12th and Arch Streets, near the Convention Center and Reading Terminal Market. Demonstrations were expected throughout the conference, which ends Monday, when Sessions is expected to make another appearance.
Inside, a crowd of about 350 people greeted the nation's top law enforcement officer with a standing ovation and applause. He told the officers that for many of them, their work in cities around the country is "getting even harder."
"It's truly a noble and high calling to work to protect this country," Sessions said. "You are on the front lines."
The event, which began Saturday, is hosted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which meets three times a year. It comes at a tumultuous time for law enforcement. Sessions has sparked controversy over immigration, race, and other issues.
Sessions made no mention of "sanctuary cities" as he did during a stop Friday in Austin, Texas, where he said that cities that disobey the law would not receive federal grants. Philadelphia has been battling Sessions' Department of Justice over whether it can legally remain a sanctuary city. The city forbids police officers from asking about the immigration status of people they encounter, and does not honor requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hold inmates in custody without a warrant.
During an appearance here during the summer, Sessions said sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia were harming their residents by not cooperating with the federal government and he urged local officials to reconsider their policies.
Sessions and others in the Trump administration have been putting a "law-and-order" stamp on policies affecting local policing, even as many criminal justice leaders and elected officials — including in Philadelphia — have begun focusing on progressive-style changes. Sessions touted the administration's relaunch of the Project Safe Neighborhoods Program, a crime plan from the Bush era that targets guns and local gangs.
Sessions said President Trump's 2018 fiscal budget seeks $70 million for the Neighborhoods program
"We will not concede a single block or street corner in the United States to lawlessness or crime," Sessions said. "The criminals, the gang members, and the drug traffickers should know: We are coming after you — and we have better tools and are better coordinated than ever."
The Justice Department plans to award more than $100 million in grants to state and local departments to hire more police officers, Sessions said. It also plans to hire 230 additional assistant U.S. attorneys, he said.
The FBI reported this month that violent crime increased in 2016. Overall, violent crime was up 4.1 percent last year, while murder increased by 8.6 percent, according to FBI statistics.
Sessions mostly followed his prepared remarks Saturday and left the conference after speaking for about 20 minutes. Reporters were not given access to ask questions and were immediately escorted from the ballroom when the speech ended. Most of the panels and workshops are closed to the public and media. A media policy posted online said reporters would be limited to a few major events, and "unscheduled" interviews with the conference's estimated 14,000 attendees were barred.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said the conference was a chance for law enforcement officials to discuss current issues and learn about new technologies, policies, and approaches. His predecessor, former Commissioner Charles Ramsey, was among the attendees.