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Feud between Missouri, Justice Department complicates joint program

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — A crime-fighting partnership between Missouri and the Justice Department is caught in the middle of a dispute over the new Missouri law banning local police from enforcing federal gun laws.

At issue is the Safer Streets Initiative, under which Missouri assistant attorneys general are deputized as assistant U.S. attorneys so that the state and federal government can work together more closely to prosecute violent crime.

But the Missouri attorney general’s office said that the Department of Justice withdrew from the program after filing a lawsuit on Wednesday challenging the state’s new gun law.

The suit seeks to block enforcement of the law, which declares “invalid” federal gun regulations that don’t have an equivalent in Missouri law. The Department of Justice contends that although states might decline to help enforce federal law, they can’t declare federal law to be invalid.

The Justice Department has said the new law drove a wedge between state and federal law enforcement and has hurt joint crime-fighting efforts.

But after Schmitt’s office slammed the Justice Department for pulling out of the Safer Streets program, Teresa Moore, the U.S. attorney for Missouri’s Western District, said in a statement Thursday that she needed to “set the record straight.” She said three Missouri assistant attorneys general were still working under the program to prosecute federal crimes in the Western District.

“I remain committed to working alongside state and local law enforcement partners,” Moore said. “This has been an effective strategy, and an efficient use of resources, to combat violent crime.”

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, said in a statement Friday that the Justice Department told the office that the lawsuit “created a conflict that necessitated the suspension of the initiative.” He said the office was “surprised and pleased” to continue the Safer Streets program in the Western District.

“It’s curious that the law has stood for 8 months, and the Biden DOJ is just now filing a lawsuit,” Nuelle said, adding that “it’s apparently a conflict in one district, but not the other. This is complete incompetence from the Biden Administration.”

Officials from the Justice Department and the office of the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri didn’t immediately reply to Friday requests for comment.

Missouri’s Republican attorney general, Eric Schmitt, called on Friday the Justice Department’s withdrawal from the program in the Eastern District but not the Western District confusing.

“It’s a shame that the Biden Justice Department is playing politics with public safety,” Schmitt said. “They’re the ones that pulled out of that agreement, not us. We stand ready, willing and able to continue that.”

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