James Smith, who's been with the agency for nearly 20 years, was appointed FBI special agent in charge just weeks ago.
FBI veteran James Smith has held the top job in the Houston field office for a few weeks, and now that he's had the chance to get acclimated, he says targeting domestic terrorism and violent crime are atop his list of priorities.
Smith has some experience in doing both. Though he didn't enter the agency until he was 36, just short of its cutoff age of 37, the New England native hails from a family of law enforcement officers and firefighters. He became a mechanical engineer but was called to serve because it was in his blood, he told KHOU.
Smith worked with gang, drug and other violent-crime units during his first postings in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., then spent four years in the FBI office in San Antonio, Texas. Though Houston has contended with gun violence like many cities around the country, as of May 31, homicides were down 3%.
However, Space City residents have been rattled by bold crimes that include a daytime shooting three months ago in the parking lot of Houston's popular Galleria mall, a crime captured on video. The alleged shooter has been arrested. Just this holiday weekend, two teens were killed after a dispute turned deadly at a pool party, and a 5-year-old was slain in a drive-by shooting Sunday.
"We do have a problem with violent crime right now, and it's not just in Houston, it's around the country," Smith told KHOU's Len Cannon in April. "What's contributing to it, that's still the unknown, why we're seeing the spike in the violent crimes and the murders. Some areas you may say it decreased, some not. It's just widespread now. What's the root cause? I just don't know right now. But we do have an issue."
Smith is uniquely suited for the job after working with the MS-13 National Gang Force Unit and the International Violent Crimes Unit at the FBI's national headquarters. He began his career as a special agent in Los Angeles, moving on to D.C. and then back to L.A. to run the Violent Crimes Against Children Squad and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Squad.
"We have a boldness of some criminals who feel they can go out and do what they want and they don't respect life," Smith said. "Right now, they don't respect anybody … Rather than talking through an issue, they'd rather just shoot, or they see an opportunity and want to fund themselves, their gangs, or their criminal enterprises."
Smith is also prioritizing domestic terrorism, more of a focus in the wake of racially motivated mass shootings like the one in Buffalo, New York, in which 10 people were killed. Police say 18-year-old Payton Gendron targeted Black shoppers at a grocery store because of their race.
"Our successes are when we've prevented an act of violence from occurring. If a violent act occurred, whether it is a mass shooting or a terrorist attack, you name it, we failed. We don't have the luxury of being wrong," Smith told the Houston Chronicle in an interview last week.
He says in the case of "lone wolf" shooters, the public can play a role in helping law enforcement identify them before they act.
"The biggest challenge is just family members in the community coming forward with information to provide to us about domestic terrorists," Smith told the Chronicle. "A lot of them get radicalized at home, sitting behind a computer, and they go into these deep, dark web pages or dark web apps and talk to folks that believe the same things they believe in and they just pump each other up."
Combined law enforcement efforts and the use of joint task forces to combat violent crime in a city as large and diverse as Houston are what Smith believes will be most effective going forward.
"These task forces are made up of not just FBI agents and intel analysts, but it's local law enforcement - whether it be Houston Police Department or Harris County Sheriff's Office, Montgomery County Sheriff's or Fort Bend Sheriff's," he contended. "We try to reach out to pretty much every town or city and bring on officers to make them task force officers that are sworn in so they will have the same powers of the federal agent in those various threats."
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