US Attorney’s Office launches civil rights unit for Western District of Tennessee
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - On Monday, United States Attorney Kevin Ritz announced the creation of a National Security and Civil Rights Unit within the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee.
This move permanently positions a supervisory attorney and several prosecutors in the area to respond to and prevent hate crimes and civil rights violations, as well as threats to national security.
“None of us can afford for federal investigators and prosecutors to take a passive role when it comes to protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” said U.S. Attorney Ritz. “We have a responsibility to our communities to be active participants in seeing those rights endure. This new unit mobilizes every tool at our disposal to prosecute hate-based crimes, civil rights violations, violent extremism, and related crimes. This is a major part of our mission and deserves to always have a clear, formal home in our office.”
Assistant United States Attorney Karen Hartridge was appointed by Ritz to lead the unit as deputy criminal chief.
For nearly nine years, Hartridge has represented the United States in prosecuting violations of federal firearms, controlled substances, and robbery statutes. Prior to joining the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Hartridge served in the Department of Veterans Affairs, where she supervised a team of attorneys and support personnel.
As deputy criminal chief, Hartridge will oversee a team of federal prosecutors on cases involving bias-related incidents, official misconduct, domestic terrorism, interstate threats, cybercrime (including exploitation of children), and other related violations of federal law.
That team will expand almost immediately, according to U.S. Attorney Ritz, as he and Hartridge also announced plans to recruit multiple new assistant United States attorneys to work on these issues by the end of the summer.
The Justice Department recently granted resources to the Western District to hire multiple additional assistant United States attorneys, including one to focus specifically on domestic terrorism and violent crime.
“Our first job is to send a strong message to the cities and counties we serve that we take these kinds of cases seriously and that we are focused on holding people accountable when there is a report of a violation of civil rights or threat to national security,” said Hartridge. “That requires us to build a team of passionate, victim-focused prosecutors who understand the responsibility of this work. The team we have in Memphis and Jackson has given us an incredible foundation; I’m excited to work with them and our new hires to grow and sustain the new unit.”
More information on the attorney vacancies, including qualifications and details on the process, can be found on USAJobs.gov.
The deadline to apply is July 16, 2023.
This new unit prioritizes cases consistent with Attorney General Garland’s May 27, 2021, directive to U.S. attorneys to combat hate crimes and incidents, address them when they occur, support those victimized by them, and reduce the pernicious effects these incidents have on our society.
“It is not a reflection that we weren’t doing this or making it a priority before, but is a formalization of the priority we’re putting on it and the emphasis we’re putting on it,” said Ritz.
Data released in early 2023 shows an increase in hate crimes reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies, rising from more than 8,000 in 2020 to nearly 11,000 the following year.
“From Charleston, to Charlottesville, to El Paso, to Pittsburgh to Buffalo,” said Ritz. “In all of those occasions, it was hate-based and extremist violence that lead in fact to federal prosecutions. I’m concerned about political violence and the rise of domestic terrorism in the United States, and this move reflects the priority that we’re putting on those cases.”
Memphis and Shelby County actually saw a decrease in reported hate crimes in 2021 with six reports, compared to 12 in 2020.
United States Attorney Ritz recently joined three subcommittees of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee (AGAC) as part of this effort.
The AGAC was created in 1973 to serve as the voice for U.S. attorneys and to advise the Attorney General.
Attorney Ritz serves on the Violent and Organized Crime Subcommittee, the Terrorism and National Security Subcommittee, and the Civil Rights Subcommittee.
As a member of these subcommittees, Ritz works with other U.S. attorneys and department leadership to advise on issues in these areas and address their impact across the Western District of Tennessee.
“We’re certainly going to continue to lean on our partnerships across local, state, and federal law enforcement to investigate and prosecute these cases wherever we can,” said Ritz. “But community members are also important partners in this fight. Part of our work is going to be talking to people in all 22 of the counties in our District about how domestic terrorism is evolving, what hate crimes look like in 2023, and how they can bring their concerns to our attention.”
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