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June has been an especially busy month for the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock, as law enforcement officers and federal prosecutors followed through on promises made earlier this year to step up prosecutions of drug and gun crimes in the Eastern District of Arkansas.

U.S. Attorney Cody Hiland on Friday announced the filing of 73 indictments in June -- a substantial number compared with the usual 10 to 30 indictments issued each month.

Thirty-nine of the 73 involved gun crimes, which were filed as part of the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative that federal, state and local authorities announced in February was being reinvigorated. On that day, the officials announced the arrest of 21 people as part of a larger effort to target gangs and violence in Arkansas' capital city.

The volume of indictments handed up by a federal grand jury this month in the Eastern District resulted in more than 50 defendants making their first appearances on the charges this week, all before U.S. Magistrate Judge Joe Volpe.

"As I said back in February, when I announced that our office's top priorities will include the successful prosecution of gun crimes, we will not slow down or back off our commitment to take dangerous individuals off the streets and put them in prison by any means available to us under federal law," Hiland said Friday in a news release.

He added, "The days of dangerous criminals illegally possessing guns with impunity are over. I am proud of the partnership and hard work between our office and the federal, state and local agencies we work with every day. These indictments are a product of that hard work and a reflection of the cooperative relationship necessary to turn these cases into indictments."

Hiland emphasized that "the work is just beginning," and that, "We're anxious for these criminals to face justice in the federal system where parole is not an option."

Billboards that have gone up across Little Rock since the initiative was kicked into high gear emphasize that parole isn't available -- ever -- in the federal system.

In 2017, the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock pursued 62 indictments in which a gun charge was the primary crime charged, Hiland said. Throughout last year, he said, the highest number of indictments associated with Project Safe Neighborhoods filed in any one month was 15, in July.

"By contrast, through the first six months of 2018, the [Eastern District] has indicted 89 [Project Safe Neighborhoods] cases, with June's 39 indictments being the highest one-month total so far," he said.

In 2017, Hiland said, the U.S. attorney's office opened 106 Project Safe Neighborhoods cases, while 174 such cases have been opened in the first six months of this year, with more expected.

A total of 438 cases were opened by the U.S. attorney's office in 2017, and already this year, the office has opened 456 cases, he said.

A Department of Justice initiative that will add 12 special U.S. attorneys in Little Rock to handle the extra caseload is helping, Hiland said. So far, four of the new federal prosecutors have completed their background checks, and together they have been assigned 15 cases.

Hiland announced that he has hired Gerald "Bart" Dickinson, who is currently chief counsel at the Arkansas Office of Medicaid Inspector General, as a violent crimes prosecutor.

Dickinson previously served as a gang and violent crimes prosecutor in Little Rock, chief deputy prosecutor in Lonoke County and worked for the attorney general's office. He will begin full-time work when cleared by the department, Hiland said.

Metro on 06/23/2018

Print Headline: Agency has gun crimes in sights

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