updated 6/1/2007 6:21:45 PM ET 2007-06-01T22:21:45

A violent crime spike in four cities led the Justice Department on Friday to dispatch additional teams of federal agents to combat guns, gangs or surging murder rates in Mesa, Ariz.; Orlando, Fla.; San Bernardino, Calif., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The four-city push comes as the FBI is expected to report a 1.3 percent rise in violent crime nationwide in 2006 — an increase for the second straight year.

At the same time, a new internal Justice report rapped crime-busting task forces for failing to coordinate efforts and potentially endangering agents’ lives.

“Each of these cities has seen an unacceptable increase in homicides or other violent crimes,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told employees at the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Authorities in each have come forward and asked for our help.”

Defying critics who have demanded his resignation over the firings of U.S. attorneys, Gonzales said he would spend the final 18 months of his tenure “in a sprint” to curb violent crime.

The influx of agents brings the number of ATF Violent Crime Impact Teams, which first deployed three years ago, to 29 cities. The FBI is also adding to its more than 180 Safe Streets Task Forces by sending one to Orlando, which Gonzales said has been plagued by gang violence.

Orlando police spokeswoman Barbara Jones said the department “welcomes any additional federal support in our efforts to combat violent crime.”

No additional funds or grants are expected to be funneled to communities to bolster their own law enforcement efforts, Justice officials said. Gonzales also called anew for laws to strengthen penalties against criminals, including imposing mandatory minimum sentences on federal convicts.

Team issues
The report, released Friday by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, warned of problems with federal crime-fighting task forces. It concluded the teams duplicate efforts and compete for help from local authorities while failing to communicate among themselves. The poor communication, in particular, resulted in three so-called “blue-on-blue” cases where federal agents mistook each other for criminals.

Those incidents, which the report found “put officers’ safety at risk,” included:

  • An undercover ATF agent and informant in Chicago bought a loaded gun from an informant working for the FBI’s Safe Streets task force.
  • FBI Safe Streets agents in Atlanta pulled over a member of a U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force whose car matched the description of a suspect both teams were looking for.
  • ATF agents working an undercover sting at a Las Vegas gun show arrested a suspect for illegally buying firearms. The buyer turned out to be an informant working for the FBI — even though the ATF had taken steps to make sure there would be no overlap between federal agencies.

Fine’s inspectors studied task forces in eight cities: Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Camden, N.J., Chicago, Gary, Ind., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Nearly 130 task force members in the cities reported working on at least 45 duplicate investigations.

Gonzales said Justice’s investigative agencies have already taken steps to fix the problems, and were ordered in March to make sure their task forces coordinate and share information with each other to prevent overlap. Additionally, the nation’s 93 U.S. attorneys were told last month to meet with task force leaders in their districts and fix any coordination problems.

Between 2003 and 2006, Fine’s report showed, 210 Justice Department task forces were working in 256 cities nationwide.

$1.5 million teams
ATF Director Michael J. Sullivan said each of his Violent Crime Impact Teams cost an estimated $1.5 million in personnel, equipment and other expenses. After being strapped by budget cuts last year, the new teams are being deployed now so “we can come in with money and bodies — we can have new agents, investigators, intel analysts” to help local authorities, Sullivan said in an interview.

But violent crime nationally continued to climb last year, if at a slower pace than in 2005, which marked the first increase since 2001.

FBI data set for release Monday is expected to show an overall 1.3 percent rise in violent crime during 2006, according to a Justice Department official who had seen the numbers. Comparatively, violent crime increased by 2.2 percent in 2005.

A second Justice Department official said the murder rate also is up, if modestly, but robberies rose by as much as 6 percent. And a third department official said the number of property crimes — such as burglary, car theft and arson — again dropped.

All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the data had not yet been released.

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