Mr. Chairman, Senator Bryan, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to appear today to update the Subcommittee on the federal government's efforts to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for the deplorable act of setting fire to houses of worship.
At the outset, we want to commend you, Mr. Chairman, for your leadership in speaking out against church fires and in helping to bring these incidents to the forefront of our Nation's consciousness. Along with Senator Kennedy, and Congressmen Hyde and Conyers, you sponsored the bill that became the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996. That statute, passed unanimously by both Houses, and signed promptly by the President, has provided us with the tools we need to combat these heinous crimes. Joining with President Clinton, the Congress showed the Nation, in no uncertain terms, that the federal government was determined to do everything within its power to bring church arsonists to justice, to prevent additional fires, and to assist victimized congregations in their rebuilding efforts.
We have made remarkable progress in the past year:
Our testimony today will provide the Subcommittee with the current status of the coordinated church fires investigations and prosecutions. Secretary Andrew Cuomo, of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will discuss the joint efforts of HUD, the National Council of Churches, the Congress of National Black Churches, and others in helping the congregations of burned churches to rebuild. Separate written statements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice will describe the fine work those agencies have done preventing fires, calming the tensions that have resulted in many of the communities in which churches have been burned, and assisting in the rebuilding effort.
President Clinton established the National Church Arson Task Force in June 1996 to promote the coordination of law enforcement investigations of church fires. Still active approximately one year later, the NCATF has brought together the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the FBI, Justice Department prosecutors, victim/witness coordinators, the Community Relations Service and the U.S. Marshals Service, in partnership with state and local prosecutors and other law enforcement officials. Hundreds of ATF and FBI investigators have been deployed to work with more than 80 federal prosecutors and state and local authorities. This is the largest current civil rights investigative effort and one of the largest series of arson investigations in history.
Each of the component agencies of the Task Force brings particular resources and talents to the efforts of the Task Force. The expertise of ATF in conducting arson investigations, particularly in making cause and origin determinations, and the expertise of the FBI in conducting civil rights investigations, have proved highly beneficial to the success of the NCATF. The Civil Rights Division has extensive experience in directing hate crimes prosecutions and in enforcing the criminal civil rights statutes used in prosecuting racially motivated church arsons. The Community Relations Service and victim/witness coordinators in local United States Attorney's Offices work closely with victim congregations. We have met at least once a week since June of last year with senior representatives of all of the agencies that make up the Task Force, and we report to the President through the Attorney General and the Secretary of the Treasury. Coordination of Federal and State Law Enforcement Efforts
Coordination among federal agencies and between state and federal law enforcement officials is essential in an investigative effort of this size and scope. To that end, the Attorney General directed United States Attorneys, wherever needed, to establish local task forces focusing on arsons at houses of worship or to join existing local task forces. Along with representatives of the United States Attorney's Offices, the local task forces consist of state and local law enforcement and fire protection officials, victim/witness coordinators, and representatives of the local field offices of the ATF, FBI, and CRS.
In addition to the local task forces, the NCATF has an operations team in Washington that is staffed by special agents of the ATF and the FBI, by seasoned federal prosecutors from the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division, and by senior prosecutors on detail from United States Attorney's Offices across the country. The operations team is led by Karla Dobinski, a deputy chief of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division. The operations team works with the local task forces to investigate incidents, analyze potential connections between and among incidents, and prosecute cases in federal and state courts. Due to the high priority of these matters, many federal cases are prosecuted jointly by NCATF prosecutors and Assistant United States Attorneys. Cases prosecuted by state prosecutors in state courts are closely monitored by the NCATF.
The coordination among federal agencies, and between federal and state authorities, has been remarkably successful. As Sgt. Terry Sult, of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Police Department, stated recently about a successful investigation: "It is because of the multitude of law enforcement agencies working together across jurisdictional lines ... and being able to work as a team that this was such a success. ... It makes our goals much more obtainable."
The Task Force has taken the following steps in carrying out its responsibilities:
Investigative Protocol. The NCATF has established a formal protocol for its investigations and prosecutions. This protocol sets forth procedures for the immediate exchange of information among task force agencies and for the development of a comprehensive investigative plan for each incident. The protocol ensures that investigators pursue all lines of inquiry, including whether the crime was motivated by race or religion and whether any given incident is connected to any other.
Unified Database. The NCATF has created a database of statistical information about ongoing investigations. The Task Force also uses ATF and FBI databases and computer systems to track and analyze evidence about attacks on houses of worship and to generate investigative leads.
Training. The NCATF has conducted several training sessions for its constituent agencies. ATF experts trained FBI agents and Department of Justice prosecutors regarding arson investigations. Civil Rights Division prosecutors and FBI experts trained ATF agents regarding civil rights investigations and prosecutions.
Tip Line. The NCATF has established a toll-free tip line for citizens to report information on church arsons. That toll free number is 1-888-ATF-FIRE. To date, NCATF has received more than 1500 calls through that service. The ATF and FBI also have offered rewards for information in a number of arson cases.
Threat Assessment Guide. The NCATF has updated and distributed a Church Threat Assessment Guide containing valuable information on the steps that may be taken to prevent fires at houses of worship and the steps to follow after an incident has occurred. Working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Task Force has distributed more than one million of these booklets.
Without the confidence and cooperation of the congregations whose houses of worship burned, many of these arson investigations -- which are difficult under any circumstances -- would have been destined to fail. Faced with criticism of law enforcement from some congregations, the NCATF took steps early on to ensure constructive working relationships between law enforcement and the affected communities. Within a week of its formation, the NCATF met with FBI and ATF Special Agents in Charge and United States Attorneys from the Southeast region to discuss the perceptions within the affected communities and to emphasize the critical importance of pursuing church fires investigations with vigilance, dispatch, and sensitivity to the needs of the victims. Following these meetings, the agents and prosecutors, together with representatives of the Community Relations Service, worked to improve lines of communications with the affected communities and to make clear their solemn commitment to these investigations.
President Clinton, Vice President Gore, Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin and Attorney General Janet Reno have worked to bring church arsons to national attention, speaking out forcefully of the commitment of the federal government to solve these cases and meeting with ministers from many of the burned churches. Secretary Rubin and Attorney General Reno instructed us to remain in close contact with the affected communities.
To highlight the importance of community outreach, we have traveled to several communities in which churches have been burned. This past spring, we went to Western Tennessee to meet with investigators and prosecutors, as well as with pastors, congregations and community leaders. Like earlier trips, this visit not only gave us a chance to view personally the devastation that the church fires have wrought, but gave us an opportunity to express the government's commitment in a very real and visible way. The trip also gave us the chance to witness the renewed spirit of communities that have come together to rebuild their houses of worship. We plan to visit other communities that have suffered church fires, either later this summer or early this fall.
The Community Relations Service (CRS) has been an important partner in the Task Force's outreach efforts. Working with CRS, the NCATF has developed and distributed to every ATF and FBI supervisor and United States Attorney a "Best Practices" guide for conducting community outreach activities.
The Community Relations Service also has played an essential role in the federal government's efforts to assist in the rebuilding of burned churches. Because of its experience working in the community, CRS has been particularly well-suited to work alongside the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Task Force in this very important pursuit. The CRS Church Burning Response Team has facilitated rebuilding efforts in more than 30 communities in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi.
The support of Congress has been essential to our ability to respond effectively to these crimes. At the time the Task Force was formed, the federal government had authority to investigate and prosecute suspicious fires at houses of worship under several statutes. These statutes include the Anti-Arson Act of 1982, which makes it a federal crime to use fire to destroy property used or affecting interstate commerce (18 U.S.C. 844(i)), and criminal civil rights statutes, which make it a federal crime either to desecrate religious real property or a house of worship or to conspire to deprive persons of their civil rights (18 U.S.C. 241 and 247).
With your leadership, Mr. Chairman, the Congress passed, and the President signed, the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996. This Act, which became law on July 3, 1996, removed a cumbersome interstate commerce requirement previously contained in 18 U.S.C. 247, eliminated a $10,000 damage requirement, and increased the maximum sentence for arson to 20 years' imprisonment. The new law greatly strengthened the hand of law enforcement in the battle against church arsonists. There have been three successful prosecutions under the amended Section 247 so far: one for the July 22, 1996 fire at the Church of God of the Prophesy in Dyersberg, Tennessee; a second for the September 19, 1996 fire at the Church of Christ in Henderson, Nevada; and a third for the March 23, 1997 fire at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Bristol, Texas. Other cases involving violations of the new statute are pending.
The 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act also authorized additional personnel at the Treasury Department and the Justice Department, including the Community Relations Service, to respond to the fires and, as Secretary Cuomo has testified, a HUD loan guarantee program that can be used for church rebuilding.
Congress also has provided essential resources for our efforts. In August 1996, in a supplemental appropriation for fiscal year 1996, Congress provided $12 million to support ATF's role in the Task Force. Congress appropriated an additional $12 million in ATF's fiscal year 1997 direct funding to support arson investigations, particularly those directed toward religious institutions. Additional funds for Task Force activities by the Justice Department, the FBI and CRS also were appropriated or reprogrammed.
In addition to Congress' assistance, the Justice Department has been able to provide immediate and direct assistance to local jurisdictions through the Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). Pursuant to the President's directive, and with the approval of Congress, BJA awarded grants to counties in 13 states to intensify their enforcement and surveillance efforts around vulnerable houses of worship. The states were: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. More than 500 counties received a total of more than $2.7 million in awards. More than half of these funds were used to pay the overtime costs of increased police and sheriff patrols and to hire additional part-time law enforcement officers. Additional funds were used to pay for security measures, such as lighting and security systems, and to fund educational efforts aimed at arson prevention.
Complementing the government's efforts to respond to the church fires has been a tremendous outpouring of assistance and support from the American people. These attacks on our houses of worship are rightly seen as a threat to our common sense of sanctuary, and they have generated a shared sense of outrage. People have crossed lines of faith, race and region to engage in a united effort to rebuild and protect our houses of worship. Religious groups, volunteer organizations, unions, insurance companies, financial institutions, and civil rights organizations all have pitched in to tackle this problem. We would like to recognize one person in particular, whose efforts have inspired all of us to work that much harder in responding to this call. The Reverend Mac Charles Jones was a principal leader for the Burned Churches Fund at the National Council of Churches. Mac died in March, and the world is diminished by his loss. We mourn the loss of a forceful leader, a constructive critic, and a friend.
The men and women of the ATF, FBI, the Treasury and Justice Departments, together with their partners in local law enforcement, have had striking success. The Task Force has opened arson investigations of 451 fires that have occurred at houses of worship since January 1, 1995. This number does not include acts of vandalism or other desecration at houses of worship, which continue to be investigated and prosecuted by the FBI, the Civil Rights Division and United States Attorneys. Of the 451 arson investigations, 171 involve fires at African American churches. More than three quarters of the 171 fires at African American churches have occurred in the southern part of the United States.
As a result of the exceptional partnership among federal, state and local law enforcement, many of the incidents investigated have been solved, mainly by a combination of federal and state arrests and prosecutions. Since January 1995, arrests of 216 suspects have been made in connection with 159 fires at churches and other houses of worship. This rate of arrest (35%) is significantly higher than the general arrest rate for arsons, which is approximately 16%, according to Department of Justice statistics.
And Mr. Chairman, we are pleased to report that in your home state of North Carolina our arrest rate is even higher: state and federal officials have made arrests in 10 of the 20 church fires and bombings that have occurred in North Carolina since the beginning of 1995. Already, 11 defendants have been convicted in 8 of those cases. The fine work of the local task forces in North Carolina continues. Just last week, on July 11, 1997, a federal grand jury in Charlotte returned an indictment against two defendants arising from the May 3, 1997 arson of the St. John's Missionary Baptist Church, in Caldwell County. The 50% arrest rate in North Carolina is a true testament to the work of the local task forces in your state.
The number of arrests made throughout the country in church fires has increased significantly since the formation of the NCATF. More than three quarters of all of the defendants arrested for church arsons since January 1995 have been arrested since the formation of the Task Force in June 1996.
The 216 arrests have resulted in a large number of convictions. Since January 1, 1995, federal and state prosecutors have obtained 133 convictions in connection with fires at 85 houses of worship. Thirty-eight defendants have been convicted of federal charges; of these, 14 have been convicted of federal civil rights offenses.
Federal charges are pending in a number of cases, and grand jury investigations are ongoing in many others. State prosecutions also have been initiated in consultation with federal prosecutors or investigators. The NCATF actively monitors these prosecutions to ensure that any federal interest is vindicated and that accurate information is compiled regarding law enforcement's response to attacks on houses of worship.
There are still many cases that have yet to be solved, however, and new fires continue to occur. Arson cases are among the most difficult criminal cases to solve. Forensic evidence is often destroyed with the fire, and because some of the churches burned are located in isolated, rural areas, often there are no eyewitnesses. For these reasons, it can often take years to solve arson cases.
The Task Force remains committed to expending the necessary time, resources and effort to solving these crimes and prosecuting those who are responsible.
As you know, information relating to an ongoing investigation may not be released publicly before the investigation is concluded. We therefore are constrained in the information we are able to provide. However, we are able to make some preliminary observations from the charges we have brought, and the convictions we have obtained, up to this point.
As indicated by our charging decisions, we have concluded that some of the church fires were motivated by racial hostility. Fourteen defendants have been convicted of federal civil rights charges in connection with fires in Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina. Additional defendants have been prosecuted in state courts for church arsons in which evidence indicated a racial animus. Overall, however, we have found that there have been a range of motives, from blatant racism and religious hatred, to financial profit, personal revenge, burglary or vandalism.
We also have considered the possibility that the church fires, particularly those at African American churches, were the result of a broad conspiracy. The Task Force has found that only a few of the fires are linked by common defendants. Conspiracy charges have been filed in a limited number of cases. These conspiracies, though, have tended to be confined to the small geographic areas where the arsons have occurred. Investigators continue to pursue the question whether broader conspiracies have been responsible for some of the fires, but to date the evidence has not established the existence of a national conspiracy.
There is still much work to be done before charges are filed in other cases. While it was the number of fires at African American churches that brought these crimes to national attention, the NCATF will continue to investigate and prosecute attacks on all houses of worship, regardless of their denomination or racial composition.
Burning a church may implicate federal anti-arson and civil rights laws, and it warrants swift and certain investigation and prosecution. The work of the NCATF continues to be vital to our efforts to prevent these heinous crimes, and to prosecute those responsible, whether they are motivated by racial hostility, religious bigotry, financial profit, revenge, or simply a desire to burn down a symbol of authority in the community. The number of church fires reported to the Task Force each month has fallen since the formation of the Task Force, but far too many places of worship continue to be burned. The commitment of resources and attention to this work by federal, state and local authorities has been essential to the success of the Task Force, and the Task Force remains dedicated to solving these crimes and bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Just last month, the Task Force submitted its First Year Report to the President. On June 10, 1997, Vice President Gore, Attorney General Reno, Secretary Rubin, Secretary Cuomo, and FEMA Director Witt all met here in Washington with more than 60 ministers of burned churches and other religious leaders. Our meeting was very successful, and the participation of so many of our government's highest ranking officials should leave no doubt about the Administration's extraordinary commitment to our task.
In closing, we again want to emphasize how important it has been that Congress and the Administration have worked together to address this issue. We must continue our unified approach.
We have seen how law enforcement working together can produce tremendous
investigative successes. We have seen how government agencies and private groups working
together can help rebuild a house of worship. And we have seen how Americans from all walks
of life working together can come together as one and make a real difference. We are committed
to building on the progress that we have seen to date and to eliminating the divisions in our
society. The federal effort continues to prosecute the arsonists, rebuild the burned houses of
worship, and prevent more fires. There is more work to be done. We are committed to seeing
the task completed. As the President said last summer: "We must rise up as a national
community to safeguard the right of every citizen to worship in safety. That is what America
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