September 26, 2020

Cities Say They Want Federal Agents Fighting Crime, Not Protesters

In recent years, cities like Chicago, Baltimore and New York have turned to Washington for help in combating gun violence and other crimes, arguing that only the federal government has the resources to tackle problems like guns being traded illegally across state borders.

Now as President Trump has threatened to send federal agents to clean up what he called “totally out of control” crime and disorder, some big-city mayors and police officials are pushing back on such federal involvement, suggesting that the president is using their cities as props in a political game.

Portland has become a cautionary tale. Several Democratic mayors have said they do not want unidentified officers dressed in camouflage patrolling their streets and battling protesters. If the federal government wants to bring resources to bear on violence, said mayors and other officials, it should help with issues like gun crimes, rather than dispatching officers who will make an already tense summer worse.

“The deployment of unnamed special secret agents onto our streets to detain people without cause and to effectively take away their civil rights and civil liberties without due process — that is not going to happen in Chicago,” Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Instead, Ms. Lightfoot said, Chicago will be receiving resources from the F.B.I., the D.E.A. and the A.T.F., agencies that the city has worked with regularly in the past “to help manage and suppress violent crime in our city.”

It’s this type of help that many mayors say they need.

In Chicago, the deployment will be coordinated with local officials, unlike in Portland where the city’s wishes were ignored, Ms. Lightfoot said, adding, “What happened was not only unconstitutional, it was undemocratic.”

The spectacle of Homeland Security agents in unmarked uniforms ringing federal buildings like the courthouse in Portland — and occasionally arresting protesters — in the name of protecting them from nightly vandalism attempts is unusual. But it is common and generally apolitical for local and state police to work hand in hand with law enforcement officials from the Justice Department in combating criminal networks.

In 2017, for example, the Chicago police created a joint strike force to try to reduce the number of guns reaching criminals in the city, consisting of 20 officers each from the Chicago police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Local and federal law enforcement agents also routinely team up on joint task forces across the country with the F.B.I. and the Drug Enforcement Administration to hunt for terrorism suspects and to investigate drug trafficking networks.

Kansas City, Mo., has found itself struggling with a wave of shootings this year, and its Police Department asked for federal help.

Rick Smith, the police chief, said that his department had applied for a grant for federal assistance and that officials in Washington quickly offered federal resources. “We said, ‘Of course,’” Chief Smith said. “We’d just come off four homicides, two police officers being shot, a 4-year-old being killed. We were looking for some sort of help, any way we could get it.”

But the city’s mayor, Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, was caught by surprise when Washington suddenly mapped out an entire project called Operation LeGend after LeGend Taliferro, the 4-year-old boy who was killed. Mr. Lucas said he learned about the operation on Twitter. He supports receiving help in solving crimes but is worried that the federal agents may end up being used for more intrusive purposes.

“When you have a president of the United States who talks about cities as if they’re his enemies, as if they’re lawless hellscapes, that gives me concern that a federal government-led program may descend into that,” he said. “I fear that there may be an expanded focus.”

ImageChief Rick Smith of the Kansas City Police Department said he and Mayor Quinton Lucas were caught by surprise when Washington suddenly mapped out an entire project called Operation LeGend.
Credit…Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press

More than 200 agents from the F.B.I., the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have begun helping with police investigations in Kansas City. The federal prosecutor in Kansas City on Monday promoted the operation’s first arrest and charged a 20-year-old man with being a “drug user in possession of firearms.”

The federal agents will not patrol or help to control protests, Chief Smith said, adding that the city does not need that type of assistance. “It’s a very surgical look at those who are involved in violence,” he said. As of Monday, there had been 110 murders in Kansas City so far this year, 31 more than at the same time a year ago, according to The Kansas City Star. The city is on pace to shatter its previous high of 155 murders in 2017.

This summer has seen an increase in murders and shootings in New York, Chicago, Atlanta and elsewhere. That, combined with continuing protests over police violence prompted by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, has left many cities on edge. Even with violent crime down over all, some statistics are startling.

In New York City, there were 42 murders in the 28 days before July 19, and 323 shootings. That is an increase of more than 13 percent for murders and 199 percent for shootings during the same period the previous year, said Christopher Herrmann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who analyzes crime statistics.

In Chicago, there were 116 murders over those 28 days, nearly a 200 percent increase, while there were 559 shootings, up more than 100 percent, he said.

Mr. Trump threats to deploy federal agents to address urban unrest echo those he made earlier in his administration, which some critics — then and now — have dismissed as posturing.

“This president blusters and bluffs and says he’s going to do things, and they never materialize on a regular basis,” Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York said at a news conference on Tuesday. “So first we should not overrate his statements — they are so often not true.”

Detroit’s leaders unequivocally rejected Mr. Trump’s proposal to send in federal law enforcement agents to quell protests.

“Detroit, unlike New York, unlike Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, just to name a few cities, didn’t have looting, buildings being burned,” said Chief James Craig of the Detroit Police Department. “We have not experienced the same level of violence, and that was handled by the Detroit Police Department and our community.”

The city has struggled with crime this year, seeing a 7 percent uptick in violent crime, Chief Craig said. Detroit is part of Operation Relentless Pursuit, a Justice Department program started in December that provides additional federal law enforcement personnel and resources to help cities tackle crime. Chief Craig said he welcomed that support, but that it was not to be confused with Mr. Trump’s suggestion that federal agents be sent to quell protests.

Credit…Erin Trieb for The New York Times

It’s not just Democratic-led cities that are struggling. In Jacksonville, Fla., the venue for the Republican convention, the city’s Republican mayor, Lenny Curry, said at a news conference on Tuesday that there was no need for federal law enforcement to help calm violent protests in his city because local police had been more aggressive. Still, the city is facing one of its deadliest years in decades, with more than 100 homicides as of Monday, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney said he opposed any federal intervention in response to the protests and Larry Krasner, the city’s progressive district attorney, said in a statement on Monday that he would prosecute anyone, including federal agents, who broke the law by assaulting or kidnapping people.

Ms. Lightfoot said that she did not expect a Portland-style deployment in Chicago. Still, she cautioned residents that if the situation changed and they saw anything similar to Portland, they should call her office or 911.

In Oakland, Mayor Libby Schaaf, a Democrat, has accused Mr. Trump of trying to distract people from the abysmal job the federal government has done in containing the coronavirus.

“I don’t need law enforcement in Oakland,” Mayor Schaaf said. “I need testing, I need personal protective equipment, we need direct income support for people who are out of work, that’s what we need. This president seems to confuse a political bent — obviously Oakland is a proud diverse, progressive city, and that is not a mess, nor is it hell.”

Yet, regular cooperation hasn’t always worked.

In Chicago this year, the police have already confiscated 5,296 guns, Mayor Lightfoot said. Still, she said, the A.T.F. is too constrained by the gun lobby to tackle serious problems like guns pouring into Chicago from Arkansas, Indiana and elsewhere.

Analysts also say there has never been a public reckoning of what was accomplished by the cooperation between the Chicago police and the A.T.F. in the Crime Gun Strike Force.

“It was pure theater,” said Tracy Siska, the founder and director of the Chicago Justice Project, which tracks criminal justice issues. “It was Trump playing to his base to show them that he was being tough.”

The real issues behind the crime and unrest — poverty, segregation, racism — are never addressed, he said.

Federal agents that deployed in Portland lacked training in crowd control and other police tactics, analysts noted. It would be even harder for them to operate in Chicago, a far larger city with entrenched gang activity, they said.

“It is hard to believe that 150 federal agents out on the street will have much public safety benefit,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, adding that it would just “pour gasoline on a lot of the tensions that we currently have in cities all across the country.”

Lucy Tompkins, Juliana Kim and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.