Fire, Ready, Aim: Will Trump’s Tough Talk on Chicago Do More Harm Than Good?

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Photo by Tripp via Flickr

This month, President Trump once again took to Twitter to declare, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on… I will send in the Feds!” We don’t yet know precisely what he means, but since “the Feds” are already in Chicago and have been working on violent crime there for years, it’s likely Trump is talking about one of two things: either a temporary “surge” of federal enforcement agents or sending in soldiers from the National Guard.

The first has been done relatively frequently in the past, including by the last administration. The second would be a nearly unprecedented exercise of federal power, opposed to by Illinois’ governor and Chicago’s mayor, bringing to mind President Kennedy’s famous showdown with Alabama’s George Wallace over desegregation.

Both would likely do more harm than good.

Before discussing why, let’s get a little context on that alleged “carnage” happening in Chicago and across the nation. It’s true that violent crime and homicide rates are on the rise, and especially so in Chicago. In 2016, violent crime rose 3.3% in the nation’s largest cities and homicides spiked more dramatically, increasing 13%. In Chicago, violent crime climbed 17.7% and homicide soared 52.8%. These already profoundly disturbing rates are continuing to rise in 2017.

That said, these increases come after years of dramatic declines in crime and violence.

Both the country and Chicago are much safer than they were 25  years ago, when crime was at its peak. Chicago isn’t even the most violent city in the U.S. Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, Newark, and St. Louis all have significantly higher rates of homicides per capita.

Nevertheless, the media and President Trump seem obsessed with violence in Chicago, largely ignoring crises and successes in other cities.

Back to surges and soldiers. Surges have been tried and usually fail to reduce violent crime, including in Chicago, which saw an unsuccessful “surge” in federal enforcement as recently as 2014. Sending in the National Guard would open a Pandora’s box of undemocratic, authoritarian consequences.

Don’t get me wrong: Flooding Chicago’s streets with police, agents, or soldiers would likely drive crime down, but only temporarily and at great financial, social, and human cost. Surges are not sustainable or repeatable. The federal government doesn’t have resources lying around to keep extra agents in place for very long, or in many places, and a “dragnet” approach would increase already high incarceration rates, potentially destabilizing whole communities.

This is the wrong kind of federal support.

Ask leaders in local law enforcement, and you’ll get a very different story about how “the Feds” can best help to promote peace and reduce violence. Just yesterday, the Police Foundation and the Major Cities Chiefs Association issued a comprehensive new report on the federal role in addressing violent crime in America’s cities. (Full disclosure: I served as an advisor to the project.) The report recommends a collaborative approach to public safety, where federal and local agencies partner on sustainable strategies driven by evidence and data.

When asked what kinds of federal assistance were useful in reducing crime, police leaders identified increasing access to investigative tools such as ballistics imaging (94%), gun tracing (83%), crime analysis (79%), and other technologies as “most helpful.” Funding through federal grant programs (73%), especially for evidence-based programs (66%), was also popular.

What was least popular among these leaders? You guessed it: short-term surges in federal agents (19%). Calling in the Guard wasn’t even mentioned.

How will Trump respond to these leaders? Again, it’s hard to tell. But early indications are not encouraging. Reports indicate Trump intends to slash spending on local law enforcement, entirely eliminating community-oriented policing and domestic violence grants while conscripting cops into his fruitless war on immigrants.

On the new White House website, Trump promises to “stand up” for the law enforcement community. So far it seems more like he’s cutting them off at the knees.

Last fall, I offered a “checklist” on how to address violent crime based on the best evidence and data available. Trump’s checklist would essentially be the opposite. Step 1 on my list: Start by analyzing where crime concentrates, identifying the places, people, and behaviors that matter most. Trump seems to decide before he understands: fire, ready, aim.

  • Step 2: Share information and build coalitions with civic, community, and criminal justice leaders. With his fear-mongering and angry rhetoric, Trump divides us: police on one side, communities on the other.
  • Step 3: Choose evidence-informed strategies that balance enforcement and prevention, using both sticks and carrots to change bad behavior. Trump’s only answer to violent crime is to “get a lot tougher.”
  • Step 4: Implement chosen strategies thoroughly, paying careful attention to monitoring and evaluation. It appears that Trump intends to go in, take credit, leave, then blame locals when the “carnage” continues.
Thomas P. Abt

Thomas P. Abt

The bottom line is that Trump’s rhetoric isn’t really about crime or violence, it’s about politics –  the politics of division and setting Americans against one another.

If he succeeds, cops and communities will suffer far worse than Chicago’s criminals.

Thomas Abt served as Deputy Secretary for Public Safety for the state of New York and as Chief of Staff to the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. He is currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Law School and Kennedy School of Government. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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