WASHINGTON — President Donald 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 violence, escalating his dark rhetoric about urban crime and bashing local elected officials who have been wary of intervention by his administration.
Trump, who has sought to make “law and order” a campaign theme and denounced “Democrat-run cities” as he seeks reelection, recounted anecdotes and statistics about a recent spate of gun violence in places like Chicago, while blaming local politicians for crime and criticizing the progressive “defund the police” slogan.
“We will never defund the police,” the president said in remarks at the White House. “We will hire more great police. We want to make law enforcement stronger, not weaker. What cities are doing is absolute insanity.”
Standing beside Trump, Attorney General William Barr said the Justice Department would send roughly 200 additional agents to Chicago and about 35 to Albuquerque, New Mexico, 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, Missouri, 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 camouflage uniforms to confront protesters in Portland, Oregon, in the name of protecting federal buildings from vandalism.
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 perform the sort of “standard anti-criminal activities” targeting violent gangs that law enforcement officers have for decades.
Chad Wolf, acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, also sought to “clearly make a distinction” between agents’ work in Portland and the plans announced Wednesday. His department’s goal in Portland, he said, was to protect the federal courthouse there from continuing attempts to vandalize it. The administration’s goal in Chicago, he said, would be to protect the public from street crime.
Still, Barr joined 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,” Barr declared.
The additional agents will be reassigned from other tasks at Justice Department agencies like the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as law enforcement officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Barr said.
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, a 4-year-old boy who was killed in Kansas City.
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. Trump said that in all, $61 million in federal grants would go to hire more police officers 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 Trump trying to make political hay of bashing Democratic elected officials, and coming against the backdrop of the disputed 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 the Trump administration announced Operation Legend for his city, saying that he learned about it on Twitter. He said he supported receiving help in solving crimes but was worried that the federal agents may end up being political props.
“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 additional agents, Barr said, adding that “to give you an idea of what’s possible, the FBI went in very strong into Kansas City, and within two weeks, we’ve had 200 arrests.”
That assertion was incorrect. A Justice Department official later said that Barr appeared to be referring to data in Kansas City from an earlier surge of federal agents, called Operation Relentless Pursuit, since Barr announced it in December. The 200 figure also covers months and includes arrests by local police working with the joint local-federal task force.
At a separate news conference on Wednesday, Lori Lightfoot, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, said that the plans Trump described — additional federal agents working within existing partnerships with local police — were more acceptable and far different from his administration’s work in Portland.If it is “not trying to play police in our streets, then that’s something different — that may add value,” she said, but added that she remained wary of the president’s motive.
“The proof is going to be in the pudding,” Lightfoot said. “It’s too soon to say if this is a value add or not.”
She also accused the president of disingenuousness in his focus on crime plaguing cities like hers, and suggested that he was campaigning against Democratic mayors to distract from his botched handling of the coronavirus response.
At a news conference later on Wednesday, Trump defended his handling of the pandemic while declaring that the cities with the most violent crime problems were run by Democrats. Noting that 14 people were shot in a drive-by attack in Chicago a day earlier, he criticized Lightfoot and other city and state leaders for not asking for more federal help.
“We are waiting for the mayor, respectfully, and other mayors and governors to call us,” he said. “We are ready, willing, and able to go in there with great force now. We also have people going in and arresting drug dealers, arresting some of the shooters that are doing the shooting. We know who they are.”Tim Keller, the Democratic mayor of Albuquerque, condemned Trump’s announcement.
“We always welcome partnerships in constitutional crime fighting that are in step with our community, but we won’t sell out our city for a bait-and-switch excuse to send secret police to Albuquerque,” Keller said in a statement. “Operation Legend is not real crime fighting; it’s politics standing in the way of police work and makes us less safe.”
Albuquerque has long ranked among the most violent cities in the country, and its Police Department has come under scrutiny over fatal shootings by officers. In 2014, the Obama-era Justice Department reached a settlement with the city over excessive use of force by the police, requiring the department to adopt policies aimed at easing conflicts with residents.
Mike Geier, the police chief, said, “Contrary to claims by politicians in Washington, D.C., Albuquerque has been keeping overall violent crime flat and has reduced homicides thus far this year.”
Most cities have experienced a drop in crime during the coronavirus 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 rise during the summer, traditionally the peak crime season because people are outdoors for longer and boil over more readily in the heat.
A sharp rise in shootings in major cities like Chicago and New York have captured most of the attention, but many cities across the United States have seen similar increases, including those run by Republican mayors.
Jacksonville, Florida, 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 homicides 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 note that homicide rates and other violent crime rates remain significantly lower now than they were in the early 1990s.