One of the country's busiest U.S. attorney's offices has received a makeover under its new chief, including the creation of a violent crimes section that will focus on street-level violence in Chicago, though no new resources are being committed to any of the units, the office said Monday.
As he took the helm as U.S. attorney for northern Illinois six months ago, Zachary Fardon came under political pressure to do more to stem persistently high rates of violence in the nation's third-largest city, and observers have been on the lookout for new initiatives.
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But the creation of a separate violent-crimes section doesn't mean the office is devoting more money and manpower to prosecuting violent crimes than before, said office spokesman Randall Samborn.
Previously, gang- and drug-related violence fell under the umbrella of the narcotics and gang division, which was staffed by about 40 prosecutors. Now, it has been broken into two sections -- violent crimes with 16 prosecutors and narcotics with 22.
The creation of a stand-alone section, Samborn explained, draws "circles around the words" 'violent crimes' to reemphasize what he says has always been among the office's top priorities.
The district employs 153 prosecutors who handle a vast array of crimes, from tax fraud to terrorism. It has been short-staffed by 19 prosecutors, but Fardon intends to hire up to 10 new assistant attorneys by year's end now that a hiring freeze is lifted, Samborn said.
The reorganization, which took effect on April 1, came after Fardon consulted local, state and federal law enforcement. In the end, he concluded some divisions had become too large and unwieldy. The smaller, more closely knit sections should be more efficient, Samborn said.
Some legal observers said there is nothing dramatic in the announcement.
New U.S. attorneys often try to make their mark with structural changes, but the biggest impacts happen internally as bosses switch around and chains of command are altered slightly, said Joel Bertocchi, a private attorney and former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago.
"But it's a mistake to think these things suggest a significant change in priorities" or a new set of objectives, he said.
Another former federal prosecutor in Chicago was critical of the restructuring.
"They were under a lot of pressure to do something (on violent crime)," Phil Turner said. "So they have to come up with something. This? It's cosmetic and means nothing."
Among other newly named sections is a securities and commodities unit, which previously fell under the financial crimes rubric. And the national security division is now the national security and cybercrimes division, reflecting that more and more crimes are committed via the Internet.
Tagged by Fardon to head the new violent crimes sections is assistant U.S. attorney Ron DeWald, a former Cook County prosecutor. Leading cybercrimes prosecutions is William Ridgway, who, at 33, is one of the younger bosses at the office.
The changes won't cost the office more or save it money, Samborn said. The office's annual budget is around $35 million.