Trump's Incursion Into Cities Distracts From A Real Gun Violence Crisis

Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Kansas City and other cities are struggling with crime, but a surge of federal officers is no quick fix.

President Donald Trump revealed plans to send hundreds of federal law enforcement officers to Chicago and Albuquerque on Wednesday despite widespread condemnation of his deployment of violent and secretive federal forces to Portland, Oregon. He justified the controversial move by citing an uptick in violence in American cities ― a real problem that experts say his approach will do little to help.

“For decades, politicians running many of our major cities have put the interests of criminals over the rights of our law-abiding citizens,” the president said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “My vision for America’s cities could not be more different than the lawlessness pushed by the radical left. ... I want to support and honor our great police.”

Trump’s plan is overtly political: He noted that the cities are run by Democratic lawmakers, accused police brutality protesters of promoting violence and has repeatedly ― and dishonestly ― said that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has called to defund the police. The narrative that cities are out of control helps him argue that Democrats cannot be trusted with the presidency. But it’s hard to see how his show of force will help the millions of people in cities where gun crime is reaching record highs, particularly in largely nonwhite neighborhoods badly hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Chicago, which Trump later called “a disaster,” is on track to see its most murders since 2016; on Tuesday, police said 15 people were shot during a funeral for a man killed in a recent drive-by shooting. In New York, there have been nearly twice as many shootings so far this year as there were in the same period in 2019. And Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Kansas City, Missouri, have seen significantly more homicides than usual.

The U.S. has also experienced more mass shootings this May and June than it has ever seen in a single month ― 60 in May and 95 in June, compared with the previous record of 51 in June 2019 ― according to research from GVPedia, a nonprofit that works on gun violence prevention.

Analysts see multiple reasons for the bloodshed. Guns, particularly assault weapons, which are involved in relatively few crimes but claim more lives in each incident, continue to be easily available in much of the country, and firearm purchases have increased this year as COVID-19 has spread and disrupted normal life. 

He’s trying to shove federal law enforcement down the throats of the mayors. Christopher Herrmann, John Jay College assistant professor

The coronavirus has both worsened people’s desperation by hurting the economy and led to artificial drops in crime during lockdowns. Officials have eased those restrictions in recent months, allowing for shootings to resume, potentially at a higher rate ― and in the summer, when crime almost always increases even under normal circumstances. Public anger in reaction to the videos of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, which Trump and Attorney General William Barr described as directly responsible for the losses many families have experienced, has diminished trust in law enforcement, making it harder to work with witnesses and informants to solve crimes and prevent further offenses.

Trump’s strategy is unlikely to address any of those factors. 

“He’s trying to shove federal law enforcement down the throats of the mayors,” said Christopher Herrmann, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice assistant professor who has worked with the New York City Police Department. “The best thing they could do is say, ‘Do you guys need help?’ and ‘This is how we can help.’” 

The president said he will send officials from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the U.S. Marshals Service and the Department of Homeland Security to Chicago and other cities.

Coming after federal officers’ crackdowns in Portland, those agents will likely be poorly received, Herrmann said. Their ability to contribute is limited, he added. The ATF, for instance, could help track guns entering cities from states with more lax laws, but many likely criminals already possess guns. The FBI could pursue prosecutions of gang leaders who would soon be replaced with others who would continue the cycle of violence. 

Trump has dealt inconsistently with the question of whether federal or local authorities bear responsibility for crime within American communities, blaming former President Barack Obama for spikes in violence as he campaigned in 2016 but now calling the current rise in crime a failure of Democratic city officials. 

When asked Wednesday why he blamed Obama for past violence but blamed only local officials for the crime spike under his watch, Trump insisted that his predecessor should have sent in federal authorities.

There are other approaches, though. Politicians who want to stem gun violence should focus on gun control and greater economic opportunity through policies such as a living wage, which would reduce the chances of people turning to crime to survive, said Ronnie Dunn, an urban studies professor at Cleveland State University. 

“This is just political gamesmanship and theater… [Trump has] explicitly tried to appeal to the racial fears of white suburbanites once again to drive further racial division,” Dunn said. 

The president cited some Democratic leaders’ choice to create “sanctuary cities” for undocumented migrants in describing the growth in crime during his Wednesday remarks, blasting “deadly policies… by these deadly politicians.” 

Trump’s latest move may at least avoid the kind of chaos his squads of Department of Homeland Security officers have spurred in Portland.

“It doesn’t look nearly as scary as the kind of intervention force that was inserted into Portland, really without coordination with the city or the police department ― they just appeared,” said Wesley Skogan, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University.

The announcement did not come as a surprise to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Though she had said she would not permit federal forces to come to the city, she appeared open to the plan Wednesday: “It’s too soon to be able to say if this is a value add or not,” she said after Trump’s remarks.

Chicago’s law enforcement apparatus could use support and has previously worked well with federal agencies, Skogan said, adding that a key factor would be if the government agencies were closely overseen by a specific team or person.

He cited the coronavirus, its economic toll, the crisis in police legitimacy and tension over the upcoming presidential election as a volatile mix of reasons for the escalating violence in cities like Chicago.  

“Our society is facing not one, not two, not three, but four major sources of crisis and tension,” Skogan said.