Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions say sending 20 ‘feds’ to the city is ‘strong leadership’ – but the move originated under Obama and success is not certain
Led off by a presidential tweet that said shootings in Chicago had reached “epidemic proportions”, the Trump White House made much on Friday of a new federal taskforce designed to combat gun violence in the city.
Attorney general Jeff Sessions followed up Trump’s tweet with a statement warning that the administration “will not let the bloodshed go on”.
“We cannot accept these levels of violence,” the statement said. “That’s why, under President Trump’s strong leadership, we have created the Chicago Gun Strike Force.”
On the face of it, the announcement seemed to make good on a promise made by Trump shortly after his January inauguration, that “if Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on … I will send in the Feds!”
But a closer read showed a fairly bombastic framing by the White House. Experts suggested that while the new program will likely be helpful, it is hardly the bold play or broad panacea the administration is pitching, especially in light of its other priorities around crime and guns.
Chicago authorities and federal officials began hashing out plans for a gun violence strike force as early as November – during the Obama administration. At a Friday news conference, federal and local officials in the city confirmed that plans for the strike force, which is slated to bring 20 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents to the city, was well under way by the time Trump took office.
The officials also said it was law enforcement in Chicago who asked for federal assistance and stressed that it would be a cooperative effort, not a hostile federal takeover. Acting US attorney for Chicago, Joel Levin, called the strike force a “multifaceted, ongoing collaborative effort” between state and local officials.
David Chipman, senior policy adviser with Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS) – a gun violence prevention organization founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords – said the strike force was a good idea and would likely be helpful in solving open gun crimes. But he added: “There are also other things they [may be] doing that would undermine any potential for success, and we’ve got to be comprehensive with this.”
Chipman was an ATF employee for 25 years, as an agent and later in managerial roles. The special skills such professionals bring can absolutely help law enforcement track and trace gun crimes, especially with modern advances in forensic investigation, he said.
The new Chicago taskforce will also employ technical support such as a mobile ballistics lab that can assist law enforcement in identifying and linking firearm crimes.
Research shows that most guns used in crimes have been used in prior crimes. Chipman said having the capacity to efficiently locate “serial shooters” could make a major impact in the way that Chicago fights crime.
Imagine a situation, Chipman said, in which police conclude that 20 of 100 shootings can be traced to the same weapon. “That means if the ATF can get in there, help them identify the one gun and the one person, you could eliminate violent crime by 20% in one place.”
The idea of ballistics matching in criminal investigations is not new. The factor of ATF involvement that excites officials in Chicago is speed.
Chicago first deputy superintendent of police Kevin Navarro said on Friday that the mobile lab, which has been deployed since 1 June and has already processed shell casing from 96 shooting incidents, had cut down the time it takes to conduct ballistics work from weeks or days to hours.
Chipman’s enthusiasm, however, was tempered by concerns over other policies the Trump administration is pursuing, for example, loosening restrictions on firearm silencers or making it easier to concealed-carry weapons.
“When [Trump] goes to the NRA convention and says ‘I support you 100%’ even though some of the things the NRA supports are dangerous to law enforcement and not supported by law enforcement,” he said, “we have to hold him accountable for that.”
Chris Burbank, of the Center for Policing Equity, also had a cautious response to the strike force rollout.
“When you have a homicide and you’re trying to solve it,” he said, “one of the issues you always have is processing firearm evidence, trace evidence. So yes, ATF and people to help assist with that will absolutely help you solve the crimes. But solving crimes and holding someone accountable doesn’t actually solve the problem.
“What we need to do is also address the beginning of [crime] and how we are going to prevent it from occurring, and that’s not by incarcerating people.”
Burbank served nearly 10 years as police chief for Salt Lake City and was also vice-president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Since the early days of Trump’s campaign, as the candidate and now president has embraced traditional GOP “law and order” messaging, Chicago has been offered as proof of a supposed rising tide of crime in the US. But while shootings and homicides in the city did spike in 2016, they are still substantially lower than in the late 1990s, and in per capita terms remain much lower than a number of other cities including St Louis, Baltimore and New Orleans.
The focus on Chicago is nevertheless not undue, said Ames Grawert, a researcher with the Brennan Center for Justice who compiles data on gun violence in the 30 largest US cities each year.
“Of the cities that we study,” Grawert said, “new murders in Chicago accounted for 55% of the increase in murders in these cuts, which is startling. It’s almost not a 30-city murder problem and just a Chicago problem.”
Grawert was cautiously optimistic about the potential of the new strike force, as well as the policy significance it might signal.
“It’s encouraging if [Trump is] pivoting from a message about some impending nationwide crime wave to a local problem needing local solutions in a handful of cities,” Grawert said.
But he also lamented language in the rollout, which suggest that the justice department will try to push more people accused of gun crimes into federal courts, which tend to mandate harsher penalties than state justice systems.
“We don’t really believe that crime is something you can incarcerate your way out of,” he said.
Like Chipman, Grawert was concerned that other moves the administration is taking will have more negative consequences than the strike force will have positive. He cited Sessions’ penchant for backing away from consent decrees, which can restore community trust in law enforcement. Hesitance to call or cooperate with police is a major driver of unsolved crimes, especially in violence-plagued communities.
“If one of the things driving Chicago crime rates is a profound distrust of police in the wake of a number of tragic incidents,” Grawert said, “then sending ATF agents won’t really solve that. But what could solve it is the kind of consent decree negation that Sessions has been trying to stall.”
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