Feds are committed to combating violence in Mobile but say there’s limits on what they can do

Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 6:38 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - Since a mass shooting downtown on New Year’s Eve, Mayor Sandy Stimpson and other city officials have called on federal authorities to help combat violence.

Southwest Alabama’s top federal prosecutor, Acting U.S. Attorney Sean Costello, told FOX10 News that the feds are committed to doing just that. But he cautioned there are limits to what federal agencies can do.

“They are not out on the streets,” he said. “They’re not doing patrol. They’re not, you know – frankly, they’re not authorized to do that. So, our federal partners assist our state and locals, who are the ones on the streets doing the investigations.”

Mobile police officers already serve on multiple joint task forces that help identify cases for federal prosecutions. And while federal prosecutions can be a useful tool against gang violence, Costello said there is nothing in the federal code that explicitly targets gangs.

“There’s no specifical statutes that deals with gang activity,” he said. “It’s always – out statutes are focused on the criminal activity, not the motivations, not the associations, necessarily.”

Offenses involving drugs or fraud must meet certain thresholds for federal prosecutors to pick up. But Costello says that is not the case for cases involving devices called Glock switches, or Glock chips, that transform semi-automatic weapons into machine guns that spray many rounds in a couple of seconds. Experts say they are nearly impossible to control.

The federal prosecutions are important because those devices are no illegal under Alabama law.

This week’s indictment of Thomas Earl Thomas Jr. on federal firearms charges is the latest high-profile example of federal prosecutors targeting Glock switches. Authorities accuse Thomas of using a modified gun during the New Year’s Eve shootout on Dauphin Street that killed a man. Thomas and a third man wounded each other, while seven innocent bystanders also suffered gunshot wounds.

In addition to the gun prosecutors, Costello said, he talks daily with city and county law enforcement authorities.

“Despite the fact that we’ve heard more about it recently, the reality is that our office has had and continues to have an excellent working relationship, both with our federal, state and local partners, that we engage with the city on a routine basis,” he said.

Mobile Public Safety Director Lawrence Battiste agreed the relationship between local and federal authorities traditionally has been good. He said the feds have been “Johnny on the spot.” Still, he added, faster action would be helpful.

“What we’re trying to do is really, in some cases, even get them to bring complaints as opposed to waiting until we get an indictment through a federal grand jury,” he said. “Because obviously, it takes a little bit more time to get the indictments. Complaints can be done immediately.”

Battiste said he wishes the city Police Department could contribute even more officers to the federal task forces.

“There’s always something more you can do or you wish you could do,” he said. “You always wish you had more personnel so that you could probably build more cases a lot quicker on some of these individuals.”

Costello said the joint task forces are about more than simply identifying cases than can be prosecuted federally. He said federal resources also help cases that ultimately do not get indicted in federal court.

“We partner up with them to make sure that we leverage everything that we have to help the city and the county and the state prosecute these cases,” he said.


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