Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday said he will expand the use of Project Exile, a program to reduce gun violence that FBI Director James Comey helped start in Richmond two decades ago when he was a federal prosecutor here.

“We’ve seen a priority that’s slipped away from firearms on the federal level,” Sessions said, speaking to law enforcement officials and others gathered for his visit to Richmond. “Firearms prosecutions have gone down. This downward trend is going to end.”

Project Exile is a widely copied program credited with cutting Richmond’s violent crime 20 years ago by shipping firearm violators to far-off federal prisons. When Comey was appointed director of the FBI, Exile was frequently cited as one of his accomplishments.

On Wednesday, when a reporter asked Sessions if he would push for wider use of Project Exile, he said, “Yes, I will promote that nationwide.”

Project Exile’s effectiveness has been questioned and has been criticized by some for disproportionately hitting low-income African-Americans. Sessions cited a need to be sensitive but have to fight crime where it is found. He said it is people in those communities who plead for help.

Sessions was in Richmond for a closed meeting with area law enforcement officials and crime victims. But he gave a 30-minute public address in which he praised area police agencies for dramatic crime rate reductions and promised more federal assistance in stopping recent increases in violent offenses and an opioid epidemic.

He noted that crime had fallen to historic lows in Richmond and across the country in recent decades. In Richmond, the violent crime rate dropped by two-thirds from 1995 to 2015.

But he said that from 2014 to 2015, the violent crime rate in the U.S. increased by 3 percent, the largest increase since 1991, in what he believes is a trend that needs to be reversed. In Richmond, violent crime rose 17 percent last year over 2015, which had the lowest violent crime rate in 45 years.

Sessions’ opening remarks were open to sheriffs, police chiefs, ranking federal agents and the media. Not everyone who might be expected to attend was invited — including Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring and Virginia’s secretary of public safety, Brian J. Moran.

The omissions concerned U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, D-4th, who said in a prepared statement that “my serious concerns about the appointment of Attorney General Sessions continue to mount. He comes to Richmond for a press event, saying he wants to address violent crime here.

“But by not inviting the commonwealth’s secretary of public safety or Attorney General Herring, Sessions proved that he does not actually care about keeping our communities safe,” McEachin said. Instead, he said, “it appears that the attorney general is on a partisan mission to deliver talking points that are not based on facts.”

Outside the SunTrust Building where Sessions spoke, dozens of protesters gathered, many with signs calling for his resignation. Inside the building, the Democratic Party of Virginia called for Sessions to resign for not telling the Senate Judiciary Committee about his meetings with the Russian ambassador.

Asked during a brief press conference Wednesday about his judiciary testimony, Sessions said, “I never considered meeting with the Russian ambassador to be anything improper in any way. We didn’t discuss politics or campaigns. ... We discussed issues like the Ukraine.”

“I was asked about an allegation that had come out that day that surrogates of the Trump campaign — and I was a surrogate — had met continually with Russian officials. I said I don’t know anything about that, haven’t met with Russians,” said Sessions. Further questions on the topic were cut off by a woman who appeared to be an aide.

In his earlier remarks, Sessions told the more than 40 central Virginia law enforcement officials on hand that “in the past four decades, we have won great victories against crime in America. It’s happened under the leadership of both parties.”

“I think our police departments are better trained, our prosecutors are better trained, we just know how to fight crime more effectively,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are alive today because of good police work — and because we’ve got a lot of murderers in jail. They’re not going to murder private citizens if they’re in the slammer, I can tell you that.”

But he said recent developments concern him. From 2015 to 2016, Sessions said, the number of homicides in Richmond jumped from 43 to more than 60. “Since 2014 the murder rate has gone up in 27 of our 35 largest cities. The homicide rates in Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Memphis have returned to levels we haven’t seen in two decades,” he said.

“If this were just a one-year spike in crime we might not worry too much about it. But my best judgment is it is not,” he said. The number of violent crimes for the first half of last year was up 5 percent, he said. “My fear is that the crime rise is not a blip but could be the beginning of a trend. If we act effectively now, we can stop this trend from rising,” Sessions said.

Among other things, Sessions blamed the rise on the increased availability and use of drugs, reducing prison populations, and less aggressive prosecutions and sentencings.

Here are a few other topics Sessions addressed Wednesday:

When asked if he ever gave President Donald Trump any reason to believe Trump had been wire-tapped by the previous president, he said, “The answer is, ‘No.’?” He said he held a role in the campaign so he cannot investigate his own campaign. “I have recused myself. I am not talking to the president or the people who investigate,” he said.

He said he did exactly what he said he would do at his confirmation hearing. “I said that when I became attorney general, I would meet with the top ethics people in the department. I would evaluate whether I had to recuse myself or not. I met with those people within days of taking office. We had several meetings and ... reached a conclusion within three weeks of being in office that I should recuse myself.”

He said he suspects the medical value of marijuana has been overstated and opposes recreational use of marijuana. He said that federal laws against marijuana remain in effect in states that have legalized it. Sessions said there should be some selective federal enforcement. “But, essentially, we’re not able to go into a state and pick up the work that police and sheriffs have been doing for decades.”In an apparent reference to police shootings in recent years, Sessions conceded there are some bad apples among the 800,000 people in law enforcement. “The Department of Justice is going to fulfill its role to ensure that law enforcement officers are not out of control.” But he said that the profession as a whole has been unfairly maligned by the actions of a few.

Dozens of protesters, including many wielding signs urging Sessions to resign, gathered on a sidewalk outside the building during the attorney general’s appearance.

One protester, Rain Burroughs of Richmond, said she’s “still astounded” that Sessions is the country’s top law enforcement official, especially in light of the revelations that he failed to disclose his contact with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearing.

“If that doesn’t count for something, what counts for anything?” she asked.

Also outside the building was Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, who, like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Herring and Moran, was not invited to the meeting.

Northam, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, called the Trump administration’s view of U.S. crime “scare tactics” that do not reflect reality in Virginia.

“We want to make sure that people feel safe in Virginia, that they’re welcome and they’re not being shamed because of their immigration status,” he said.

Northam also took issue with Sessions’ testimony, once again calling on the attorney general to resign.

“To have our highest-ranking law enforcement official in the country have trouble telling the truth, I can’t condone that,” he said. “We have to have people who are honorable.”

fgreen@timesdispatch.com


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Staff writer Bryan DeVasher contributed to this report.