September 30, 2020

Painting Bleak Portrait of Urban Crime, Trump Sends More Agents to Chicago and Other Cities

WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Wednesday that the Justice Department would send hundreds of additional federal agents into cities to confront a rise in shootings and other crime, escalating his dark rhetoric about urban crime and bashing local elected officials who have been wary of intervention by his administration.

Mr. Trump, who has sought to make “law and order” a campaign theme and denounced “Democrat-run cities” as he seeks re-election, recounted anecdotes and statistics about a recent spate of gun violence in places like Chicago, while blaming local politicians and liberals for crime and criticizing the progressive “defund the police” slogan.

“We will never defund the police,” the president said. “We will hire more great police. We want to make law enforcement stronger, not weaker. What cities are doing is absolute insanity.”

Standing beside Mr. Trump, Attorney General William P. Barr said the Justice Department would send roughly 200 additional agents to Chicago to bolster violent crime task forces that work with local police. The surge will build on previously announced plans to send about as many agents to Kansas City, Mo., and more cities would be added, he said.

The announcement comes amid heightened scrutiny on interventions by federal law enforcement officials in urban areas amid protests prompted by the police killing in May of George Floyd in Minneapolis — including the deployment of Department of Homeland Security agents in unmarked uniforms to confront protesters in Portland, Ore., in the name of protecting federal buildings from vandalism.

Mr. Barr sought to distinguish the Justice Department additions to existing task forces from the novel issues raised by confrontations with protesters, stressing that the agents would be performing the sort of “standard anti-criminal activities” targeted violent gangs that law enforcement officers have for decades.

“This is different than the operations and tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to confront mob violence. But, the operations we are discussing today are very different — they are classic crime fighting.”

Still, Mr. Barr joined Mr. Trump in blaming politics for a recent rise in crime rates, although they still remain far lower than they were a generation ago. He denounced what he portrayed as the demonization of the police and calls to defund local law enforcement agencies.

“This rise is a direct result of the attack on the police forces,” Mr. Barr declared.

The additional agents will be reassigned from other tasks at Justice Department agencies like the F.B.I., the Drug Enforcement Administration, the United States Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as law enforcement officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Barr said.

Mr. Barr said the agents would be part of the same effort announced several weeks ago for Kansas City, which the Justice Department is calling Operation Legend, after LeGend Taliferro, the 4-year-old boy who was killed in Kansas City.

Mr. Barr also announced grants of about $3.5 million for Chicago to help compensate for overtime and other expenses incurred in supporting the federal task force and $3.6 million for Kansas City to hire additional police officers. Mr. Trump said in all $61 million in federal grants would go to hire more police in cities that are eventually included in the operation.

While there is nothing unusual about federal agents teaming up with local police on task forces to investigate gang violence or drug trafficking networks, the Trump administration’s recent efforts — pegged to Mr. Trump attempting to make political hay of bashing Democratic elected officials, and coming against the backdrop of the intervention around the federal courthouse in Portland — have strained federal and local relations.

The mayor of Kansas City, Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, has said he was caught by surprise when Washington announced the Operation Legend for his city, saying that he learned about it on Twitter. He said he supports receiving help in solving crimes but is worried that the federal agents may end up being used for more political purposes.

“I have grave discomfort with the pain of my people in Kansas City being exploited for political purposes,” he said. “We all recognize the tragedies that are going on in our streets. A mayor like me, you live with this every day. I find it disgraceful the narrative that the president and others use to try to score political points.”

Kansas City has already received about 200 agents, Mr. Barr said.

On Tuesday, Lori E. Lightfoot, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, stressed at a news conference that the city was going to be receiving the sort of federal resources it has worked within the past “to help manage and suppress violent crime in our city” — making clear that it was not going to be a Portland-style deployment to confront protesters.

“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,” she said.

Most cities have experienced a drop in crime during the pandemic — people staying at home meant fewer opportunities for assaults, rapes, domestic burglaries and other violence, according to criminologists. At the same time, homicides and shootings were up in numerous cities and began to spike during the summer, traditionally the peak crime season because people are outdoors for longer and boil over more readily in the heat.

The sharp rise in shootings in major cities like Chicago and New York have captured most of the attention, but the pattern has been repeated in many cities across the United States, including those run by Republican mayors — a point that Trump administration officials usually do not mention. Jacksonville, Fla., the site of the Republican National Convention next month, is experiencing one of its most lethal years in decades, with more than 100 homicides as of last Monday, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department. Fort Worth, Texas, has had 51 murders this year compared with 36 at this time last year, its police department said.

While some of the largest American cities are on track to hit higher numbers this year than they have in decades, criminologists also say that murder rates and other violent crime are significantly lower now than they were in the early 1990s.

Raven Smith, a 21-year-old Chicago native who started a clothing line, Straight From the Go, to promote a positive image of her hometown, said she welcomes anything that might help her city battle its violence. But she said that if Mr. Trump really wanted to make an impact, he would be better off coming to town and speaking with community leaders.

“Maybe coming to Chicago and talking to Chicago leaders about things we can do to change the narrative, not just like, ‘Oh, we’re going to send the troops there,’” she said. “I think we need to fix the actual root of the problem.”

Neil MacFarquhar and John Eligon contributed reporting.