U.S. Attorney Richard Moore, who presides over the Southern District of Alabama, based in Mobile, said listening to his community is a big part of tackling the hardest problems in South Alabama.
“You know, first we have tried to start with making sure that we listen to the community, meaning the community leaders – the people who have the most interest in their streets, their neighborhoods – to see what the will is of the community and to talk about possibilities with them,” Moore said.
Listening to community leaders might not be what some would expect from a federal prosecutor appointed by President Donald Trump and working in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department.
Moore said his priorities are the same as those of all U.S. attorney’s around the country. At the same time, his jurisdiction is facing some particular issues, he said.
Moore, who has spent almost two decades in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, believes it will take listening locally to improve some of the problems in his area.
Success Through Respect
“You know, we certainly have an independent obligation to make the streets safe and to use our resources to fight violent crime, along with our local and state law enforcement partners,” Moore said. “But the reality is we won’t be fully successful unless we’re respectful of the people who live in the community. So that’s where we start. And we’ve been having an ongoing dialogue with civic leaders, the pastors in the community … and it’s been a helpful, productive, thoughtful process.”
Before he became U.S. attorney, Moore, a graduate of Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, had substantial experience. From 1985 to 2003, he was an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District, where he prosecuted criminal cases and held the roles of chief of the criminal division, senior litigation counsel and coordinator of the Anti-Terrorism Task Force.
In 2003 he was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as inspector general for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and from 2009 to 2011, Moore served as chairman of the Investigations Committee for the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. He was appointed U.S. attorney in 2017 under the Trump administration and began leading the Mobile-based office in September.
As the top federal law enforcement official in South Alabama, Moore, like other U.S. attorneys, has had an agenda handed to him.
“Obviously we are trying to execute on the president’s agenda and the attorney general’s agenda and, as you know, they’ve been very directive about reducing violent crime and going after illegal immigration,” Moore said. “The opioid addiction, pill-mill kind of abuse area is something that they’ve also stressed.”
Tackling Crime ‘Hot Spots’
But, also like most U.S. attorneys, he has some leeway in how he carries out his mandate.
For instance, cases involving felons in possession of firearms get a lot of attention from Moore’s office, “because the belief is, and I agree with this, that convicted felons with firearms pose a particular safety hazard to our communities,” he said.
A related area of concern is violent crime, “just looking at the violent crime rates in our district and where the hot spots are, trying to be strategic about our resources and going after that any way that we can,” he said.
The hot spots Moore identified are in Mobile, Selma and Prichard. Prichard, a city of about 23,000 people, has long struggled with poverty, unemployment, crime and drug use, particularly since the closure of two paper company factories in the 1980s and 1990s.
Today, Moore said, it’s a point of concern for law enforcement. “Just historically and just looking at the data that we have, we end up having a lot of felon possession cases, some carjackings, that kind of thing,” he said. “You’ve got, obviously, some economic pressures there – unemployment rates and things that contribute to pressures that, I think, increase crime rates. So that’s on our radar.”
Still, faced with such problems, what exactly does the U.S. Attorney’s Office do?
That’s where the listening comes in, he said. “We have a lot of folks who are in neighborhoods that I’ve referred to as ‘hot spots’ who are sincerely dedicated to trying to find the right balance from their perspective for neighborhood policing and what that means,” he said. He added that his office is “aggressively going after the kind of crimes that end up hurting people, and at the same time, not offending and not being disrespectful of the people in the community.”
Moore said that includes trying to rebuild trust, after, to use his example, SWAT team operations. “Those kinds of things, where it’s been a surprise to them,” he said. “You know, we sometimes have to go back and have those conversations.
“I think the reality for us is in law enforcement (is) we know we cannot prosecute or arrest our way out of this problem. We need the support of the community. We need to think about the possibilities for diverting people away from the criminal justice system, if that’s appropriate and possible. And we need input from the community about that.”
‘Second Chance’ Survives as Program
Moore said his office is engaged in efforts to divert people away from the criminal justice system. “We have a program that the Mobile Police Department started a couple of years ago under the previous administration. It’s called Second Chance and there’s a process to look at violators, people who could otherwise perhaps be prosecuted, and to make some judgments about whether a diversion program is better for them. They have had some success with that,” Moore said.
As Moore sees it, keeping people out of the system when possible falls within what the Department of Justice is calling for.
“I think that’s part of the directive that we’ve been given … by the attorney general, you know,” he said. “We should look at felons that are coming back into the community who have done their time, and what can be done to avoid recidivism. We need to be looking at what’s appropriate for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to do with juveniles and different programs that are available to divert them from the criminal justice system.”
Moore said that his predecessor in the Mobile U.S. Attorney’s Office, Kenyen Brown, began an “excellent” program called Bridging the Gap, which remains in effect. “That’s a cooperative program between the Mobile Police Department and the FBI and our office,” Moore said.
The program is clearly aimed at a high-profile, and often deadly, issue facing many communities: what happens when a young person is stopped by a police officer. When Brown instituted the program in 2015, he gave it a different name: S.T.Y.L.E. – Successful Tips for Youth on Law Enforcement Encounters.
“In the wake of so many tragic events across the country in recent years, it is vitally important that we continue to ‘bridge the gap’ between our youth and law enforcement officers,” Brown said. “The past has shown us that these tragic events can occur in smaller cities and rural areas as well as larger metropolitan areas.”
The way Bridging the Gap works remains the same, Moore said.
“That program takes high school kids out to the police range and takes them through a number of scenarios to demonstrate how difficult it is for police officers when they’re trying to assess, for example, stopping a car. And we try to get these high school kids to put themselves in the car and act out the scenarios where they’re being stopped and the police officer is having to make some decisions, the kind of things that they can do to keep a situation from escalating and trying to also demonstrate how a police officer has sometimes a very short period of time to make some decisions about what level of force is necessary under different scenarios,” Moore said.
The goal remains to “have the right kind of dialog with these students before they’re in those situations. And, you know, that just makes good sense,” he said.
Moore’s approach to the job of U.S. attorney involves keeping what worked from previous administrations, regardless of the political affiliation of the president who appointed his predecessors. Brown, who had become Alabama’s first black U.S. Attorney when he was appointed by President Barack Obama, originally joined the Southern District federal prosecutor’s staff in 1996 as an assistant.
“Kenyen Brown is a friend of mine,” Moore said. “He was in the office here when we were both assistant U.S. attorneys, and we’re going to try to borrow as much as we can from what works … of what has been done in the past.”
Immigration and Coordination
The Trump administration’s aggressive approach to immigration issues has resulted in ideological conflict with sanctuary cities around the country – most notably in California, where the Justice Department is suing the state. How does that push to remove more undocumented people from the country play out in South Alabama?
Moore said wait and see.
“I would say we’re early in the process of determining what’s the best use of our resources and where we can do the most good,” he said. “So, I would just say some of that will become more apparent over the next couple of months. But we take this seriously.
“Now, we’re going to try to be judicious and use our discretion about what we go after. But, you know, particularly where illegal immigration is connected to violent crime, that’s going to be a priority for us … trying to use our resources there as opposed to trying to round up everybody who might be illegal.”
On immigration and other issues, Moore’s office, like other U.S. Attorney’s Offices, will rely a great deal on partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies. For more than two decades that has been through a Law Enforcement Coordinating Committee, or LECC.
“We meet regularly, at least once a month, and … ad hoc meetings with the locals and our federal partners every week,” Moore said. “We all have limited resources, so a lot of what we have been doing since I took office back in September is sitting down and talking about the resources that are available, each federal law enforcement agency and the state and local folks, to see what their priorities are, to get their thinking about what should be done.
“Again, just like I was talking about being respectful of folks who live in these communities where we’re going to be ramping up our attack on violent crime, we need to be respectful of our partners that we’re asking to join us because we’re essentially asking state and local partners to step up and join us in what the Attorney General has outlined for us to do. … We try to first listen and do as little telling as possible. And I think we’re making some good progress with that.”
“We have a real opportunity in law enforcement to empower our communities to help us in this effort, and that’s a priority for me,” he said. “Whatever the crime is … whether it’s violent crime or going after opioid abuse or illegal immigration. In the end, our success is going to depend on extending our influence by having support from the community. So that requires the U.S. attorney and my staff to be out listening … . I’ve found it to be encouraging because we have so many people of good faith who just want to do the right thing, and they want to help law enforcement. At the same time, they want to have some input; … they want us to know what concerns them and what they think works and what they think doesn’t work, and we’re listening.”
“I mean, the reality is the best ideas should win,” Moore said. “And we think we have some good ideas, but our experience is we need to sit down with people who have different ideas. And I have learned, frankly, more from people who disagree with me than I have from people who agree with me.”
(Nick Patterson, formerly editor of Weld: Birmingham’s Newspaper, leads a project looking at the influence of federal dollars, personalities, programs and policies in Alabama. The Alabama-Washington connection is a multi-billion-dollar question for Alabama, and that’s just the U.S. government dollars at play in a year in the state.)