In a speech on July 11, 2016, Trump drug out his favorite whipping boy ― the murder surge in Chicago ― to claim that there’s an unparalleled reign of violent lawlessness in American cites. Trump doubled down on that wild claim in an interview with Fox News the next day when he again said murders were now the rage everywhere in America.
It’s true, the murder count in Chicago has made news, both for sensationalism and for Trump’s purposes, because it does appear that the city has lost control in the war on violent crime. But Trump’s claim was, and is, like everything else out of his mouth, a gross exaggeration. Okay, a lie.
Chicago had 850 homicides in 1990; in 2015, the number was 473. The city ranks in the mid-range of big cities in the overall homicide rate. The murders in Chicago are a source of pain and anguish for the victims’ families and the neighborhoods they occur in. Yet, countless studies and surveys of violent crime patterns repeatedly debunk the conservative’s favorite and never-ending talking point that murderers are running wild in America’s streets, especially streets in poor black communities.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had barely taken his seat at the Justice Department before he pounced on this myth and declared that the feds would make war on violent crime in the nation. What flew way under the media and public radar scope was Sessions cavalier dismissal of the Justice Department’s own report and recommendations on cleaning up the brutal, racist and blatant, law-breaking practices of the Chicago Police Department. The lengthy probe of the department was initiated and pursued by former Attorney Generals Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.
Sessions simply echoed his bosses’ pledge that the police must be defended, protected and insulated from those pesky abuse lawsuits and, even worse, probes and consent decrees from the Justice Department that supposedly do nothing but tie up cop’s hands. The new line from both is that police now are so terrified of being sued or investigated or punished if they make a street stop that they are virtually letting violent criminals run amok. This is a lie, but it’s also so self-serving that it’s just too irresistible not too repeat and turn it into the new mantra of Sessions, Trump, conservatives and many in law enforcement.
Sessions has several goals in spewing this line. One, is that it gives license for the Justice Department to scrap the modest reforms that former President Obama and Holder put in place to probe, investigate, and, where needed, broker consent decrees to reduce police abuse in Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore and a handful of other cities.
The decrees weren’t just arbitrarily imposed on these cities, as Sessions loves to imply, but came after exhaustive and lengthy studies that proved there was an outrageous pattern and practice of abuse by these departments. Another reason is by harping on violent crime as if it’s the norm in the country, this gives perfect cover for Sessions’ aim of getting the Justice Department and the feds totally out of the business of enforcing civil rights protections, whether it be curbing police abuse, voting rights protections, racial disparities in sentencing and other criminal justice reform issues.
Sessions and Trump have made it abundantly clear that if they have their way, police will have virtual carte blanche to be judge, jury and executioner when it comes to dealing with those they deem violent criminals. There will be minimal to no safeguards imposed by the Justice Department on any department that blatantly engages in abuse and misconduct. The historic role and mandate of the Justice Department to be the backstop insuring that local police do not operate as a lawless gang will be scrubbed.
It’s a cold, calculated and cynical agenda that will usher in a new era of wild spending on and expansion of jails and prisons. It will spur a massive ramp up in spending on more police, judges and probation and parole officers. It will cower state and federal lawmakers into trying to outdo each other in shouting the loudest about getting tough on crime and torpedoing every sane and sensible initiative on crime reduction from expanded treatment to job and skills training programs. This also included the scrapping or radical overhaul of the blatantly race-tinged drug sentencing, three strikes laws and the harsh sentences for non-violent offenders.
The movement toward more humane and cost-effective measures for dealing with crime has always been fragile. It still turns on public perceptions about crime, especially black crime. This tracks directly back to how the media plays up, or rather, sensationalizes, violent crime. When that happens, it simply deepens public belief and fears, that inner city neighborhoods are lawless, violent, out of control, killing zones, that must be dealt with as if they were ISIS-controlled rebel territory.
This ploy has always had a hard-political agenda behind it. It only takes one well-placed and prolonged panic story on the alleged new murder wave in America to reignite it as the issue of national concern again. Sessions’ phony war on violent crime fits the tee for that perfectly.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of In Scalia’s Shadow: The Trump Supreme Court ( Amazon Kindle). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.