File- This Jan. 26, 2016, file photo shows New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio testifying during a joint legislative budget hearing on local government in Albany, N.Y. New York City’s mayor and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions are battling over a Department of Justice statement accusing the city of being “soft on crime.” (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)
NEW YORK (AP) — Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions engaged in a war of words on Friday over a Department of Justice statement accusing the city of being "soft on crime."
The department said New York "continues to see gang murder after gang murder, the predictable consequence of the city's 'soft on crime' stance."
The statement was part of an ongoing dispute between Republican President Donald Trump and cities including New York over immigration policy, with the Trump administration threatening to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to comply with federal immigration authorities.
The Democratic mayor called the "soft on crime" characterization "absolutely outrageous."
"Attorney General Sessions is supposed to be the leading law enforcement official in America," de Blasio said. "Why would he insult the men and women who do this work every day, who put their lives on the line and who have achieved so much?"
Police Commissioner James O'Neill, who appeared with de Blasio at police headquarters, said the "soft on crime" statement made his blood boil.
"To say we're soft on crime is absolutely ludicrous," O'Neill said.
He said his police department, by far the nation's largest, locked up more than 1,000 people in 100 gang takedowns last year.
"Maybe we should ask them if we're soft on crime," he said.
Violent crime has been falling in New York for more than 20 years and is continuing to decline, as police officials noted Friday. O'Neill said the number of shootings in the city last year was the lowest since record-keeping began.
The Department of Justice responded in a later news release that it was criticizing de Blasio's policies, not the officers of the New York Police Department.
"As made very clear in the department's release, it is New York City's policies that are soft on crime," the Department of Justice said. "Those policies, implemented by New York City's mayor and his administration, are directly responsible for a dangerous MS-13 gang member walking out of Rikers Island (jail complex) in February. Unfortunately, the mayor's policies are hamstringing the brave NYPD officers that protect the city, and only serve to endanger the lives of the hard working men and women of the NYPD who care more about keeping their city and country safe than they do about city hall politics."
The Department of Justice was referring to the February release of an 18-year-old from Rikers Island even though he had been ordered deported by an immigration judge. Federal immigration authorities complained at the time, saying the teenager was a member of the violent MS-13 street gang.
Court records showed that the teen had been convicted of fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, a misdemeanor not among the 170 crimes the city considers serious enough to merit cooperation with immigration officials.
A mayoral spokesman said there was insufficient evidence to prove the teen was in a gang.