IN DEDICATING the FBI's new Forensic Science Research and Training Center at Quantico Monday, Attorney General William French Smith committed the Justice Department to a number of encouraging steps to contain violent crime. He used the occasion both to unveil many of the initial recommendations made by his Task Force on Violent Crime and to promise rapid action by his department. The staff and members of the task force, in turn, have kept to their own tight schedule in releasing their "first phase" proposals, those ideas that can be adopted without changes in existing federal laws or programs.
A number of the recommendations Mr. Smith endorsed dealt with coordinating more effectively the limited resources of federal law enforcement agencies among themselves and with those at other levels of government. For example, Mr. Smith agreed that steps should be taken to reduce substantially the current delays of 25 days or more in the FBI's processing of fingerprint identification requests from other law enforcement agencies; also, the Justice Department must not only deal more promptly with requests for technical help from local or state authorities but also, at the same time, expand training and support programs in the law enforcement field.
The attorney general made sense in his emphasis on improving genuine coordination -- making it "a reality nationwide" -- between federal lawmen (U.S. attorneys, U.S. marshals, and agents from the FBI, DEA, INS, Postal Inspection Service and Treasury Department) and their counterparts at the state and local levels. Citing a recent "typical" month in which a quarter-million students and over 5,000 teachers suffered physical assaults, Mr. Smith promised additional federal involvement in the effort of state and local authorities to cope with violent (often drug-related) crime in the schools. At the same time, he urged more federal emphasis on apprehending the criminally violent and narcotics traffickers among the almost 200,000 now-outstanding fugitive warrants, and related to this, a sharper focus at Justice on "career criminals," including violent juvenile repeat offenders.
All of these proposals make sense, and although the attorney general avoided the issue Monday, almost all will require considerable additional funds. Now that his task force has begun to provide ideas for curbing the explosive growth in violent crime, Mr. Smith will be bound to fill out the numbers that will turn this program into more than a cosmetic effort or a speech. As for the task force, it has been instructed in its "second phase" to present any recommendations that require new legislation or changes in existing programs. Many of these should stir some controversy but, then, so should several of the "first-phase" proposals discussed by the attorney general.
Until the Justice Department begins putting into practice some of the task force recommendations, opposing voices may be muted. Still, Mr. Smith endorsed creation by the FBI of an "Interstate Identification Index" to track information kept by different states on a single alleged violator, a suggestion that should revive fears among some civil libertarians of that more comprehensive computerized national data bank, which incited protests during the 1970s. Complaints can be anticipated, also, about the notion of using abandoned military bases as emergency prisons, and Mr. Smith hinted at future approval of still another imaginative -- but arguable -- task force proposal: to assign U.S. Navy vessels to hunt down drug smugglers "by air or sea." Significantly, he did not mention another task force idea with much merit: authorizing a separate national registry of firearms violators, an idea sure to arouse the gun lobby.
In the end, even by this partial endorsement of recommendations from his Task Force on Violent Crime, Mr. Smith has set the stage for improvement in federal law enforcement efforts. The Justice Department will have to move ahead energetically, money in hand, to make each of Mr. Smith's promises at Quantico into a realistic program.