PHILADELPHIA — The motorcade carrying Lisa O. Monaco, the No. 2 law enforcement official in the United States, maneuvered between potholes, and people, on Kensington Avenue when her driver braked for a man wandering into traffic with a hypodermic needle dangling from his arm.
It was late June, and Ms. Monaco was in the city to address a particularly savage surge in drug abuse and violent crime here, shuttling to meetings with federal prosecutors, state and local police officials, and community members aimed at combating an annual spike in summer violence ushered in by the Fourth of July weekend.
“People are living in an environment they shouldn’t have to endure,” she said a few days later, recalling the drive from downtown to meet with beat cops in Northeast Philadelphia. “You actually have to step over needles to take your kid to the bus stop.”
The encounter was an unsettling reminder of the daunting challenges the Justice Department faces in the coming months.
If Washington is focused on the criminal investigation into the efforts to keep President Donald J. Trump in office after his 2020 election loss, the department’s top leaders are equally concerned with the stubborn, postpandemic rise in violent crime, and a growing sense that lawlessness is overtaking daily life in many big cities. Republicans have highlighted the issue, along with inflation, before the 2022 midterm elections, but Democrats, like Mayor Eric Adams of New York, are also embracing a law-and-order approach as their constituents demand action.
The timing of Ms. Monaco’s trip, with the heat setting in over the city, was noteworthy. The onset of warm weather typically signals an onslaught of violence in many parts of the country, with holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July proving deadly in recent years.
Last year, at least 233 people were killed and 618 others were injured in about 500 shootings over the Fourth of July weekend, according to the Gun Violence Archive, an academic consortium that compiles law enforcement data. That was an improvement from 2020, when 314 people were killed and 751 more were injured.
Mass shootings like those in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas, pop up with little public warning. But the seasonal rise in violence in cities is more predictable, and local departments spend months girding for the surge, experimenting with different approaches to limit the carnage.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is deploying additional patrols on the city’s West and South Sides. In Milwaukee, police officials are using new acoustic technology to pinpoint gunshots to identify six areas to concentrate on over the holiday weekend. The police in Philadelphia — the site of a recent 70-bullet shootout that one resident likened to a scene from the Wild West — are working on similar plans.
Yet the federal government, for all its vast investigative powers, plays a supporting role when it comes to fighting street crime. The Justice Department prosecutes major drug and weapons trafficking cases, provides technical support on gun tracing and the analysis of other evidence, and distributes billions in grants to supplement the budgets of local departments that are mainly paid for by area taxpayers.
Over the past year, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland has announced a series of steps intended to bolster efforts to counter rising crime rates, at a time when the administration as a whole is anxious about the dire political implications of the perception that it is letting the situation spiral out of control.
They include the creation of five “strike forces” that work with local law enforcement to disrupt firearms trafficking; a Drug Enforcement Administration initiative to combat drug-related violent crime and deal with overdose deaths in 34 cities, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis and Detroit; a $139 million initiative to hire 1,000 officers at understaffed local departments; and a rule that effectively bans the production and sale of homemade “ghost guns,” which are fueling gun violence on the West Coast.
In December, Congress provided $1.6 billion in additional funding for departments and community groups to address violent crime and community justice. The associate attorney general, Vanita Gupta, who has tried to balance support of local law enforcement with the administration’s social justice agenda, oversees some of those initiatives.
There has also been an uptick in prosecutions. Over the past few weeks, the department has brought a series of major gun cases, including an indictment against an illegal weapons dealer in Texas who sold 75 guns that were subsequently connected to homicides, drug deals and other crimes.
But the biggest recent boost, from the department’s perspective, might be among the least flashy: the confirmations of U.S. attorneys whose nominations had previously been blocked by Republicans in the Senate, providing frontline federal prosecutors with more stability in aggressively pursuing cases. One of them is Jacqueline C. Romero, the new head of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which includes Philadelphia, who took over the office shortly before Ms. Monaco’s visit.
Ms. Monaco was also there to hear from the police directly. During a short visit to a mini-precinct in the Kensington area, several officers just out of the academy told her that, despite the challenges, their presence seemed to make a major difference even in hard-hit neighborhoods.
On Wednesday, after returning to Washington, Ms. Monaco began a meeting of all 93 U.S. attorneys — including 16 new ones in attendance for orientation — by stressing the need to coordinate with local law enforcement officials on the anticipated crime wave, according to a participant on the call.
Yet if her trip to Philadelphia proved anything, it is that the department’s influence, while significant, is limited.
Moments before Ms. Monaco and Ms. Romero convened a law enforcement round table that included the police commissioner, Danielle Outlaw, at the U.S. attorney’s office next to Independence Hall, the Supreme Court loosened restrictions on carrying firearms in public.
Later, Ms. Monaco met with parents whose children had been killed by guns. One by one, they shared heart-wrenching stories, and one by one, they asked her to take actions that were far beyond her power to address — like instituting stringent national gun control measures, including a ban on semiautomatic weapons rejected by Congress.
“I’m begging you people in Washington to do something,” pleaded one father who had lost two sons and a brother to gun violence, according to a person who attended the closed-door session.
Another attendee, Cherie Q. Ryans, 72, a retired schoolteacher whose 18-year-old son was killed in 1990, said she was pleased to see Ms. Monaco and Ms. Outlaw and did not doubt their commitment to helping. But Ms. Ryans, an anti-violence activist, has seen well-intentioned officials fail in the past.
“The chief and the lady from Washington might be very good, but we are in an environment where it doesn’t matter what experience they have, or what they plan to have,” she said in an interview.
“Summer is coming,” she said. “I’m feeling that thing, that anxiety, about the summer. I’m afraid for myself, but now I’m mostly afraid for my grandchildren.”