Preparedness & Recovery

President's Tweet Sends Law Enforcement Scrambling to Figure out its Meaning

Was the president talking about delivering more federal aid to the Chicago Police Department?

by Jason Meisner, Annie Sweeney and Jeremy Gorner, Chicago Tribune / January 26, 2017
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(TNS) - The roots of Chicago's gun violence epidemic are so deep and multifaceted that experts have long said law enforcement alone can't solve it.

But in 24 characters of a tweet sent Tuesday night, President Donald Trump proposed his solution if Chicago can't reduce the violence.

"I will send in the Feds!" Trump, who campaigned on a law-and-order platform, tweeted Tuesday night in a post that also quoted data on Chicago shootings published by the Tribune this week.

What exactly the president meant by the vague missive was a matter of open debate for hours Wednesday as law enforcement agencies scrambled to read between the lines and decide how — or even if — to respond.

Was Trump talking about delivering more federal aid to the Chicago Police Department? Would he send more resources to the FBI or other federal agencies that already have been working on the problem for years? Or did he intend to send in the National Guard?

"The statement is so broad. I have no idea what he's talking about," Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said.

At the White House daily briefing Wednesday afternoon, press secretary Sean Spicer sought to clarify Trump's remark, telling reporters that the president was upset about "turning on the television and seeing Americans get killed by shootings."

But Spicer gave no indication the president was close to ordering in troops.

"What he wants to do is provide the resources of the federal government, and it can span a bunch of things," Spicer said. "There's no one thing. There can be aid, if it was requested up through the governor, through the proper channels, that the federal government can provide on a law enforcement basis."

The Tuesday tweet was not the first time Trump had used his favorite social media platform to jab at Chicago's homicide rate or imply that Mayor Rahm Emanuel needed help. But it was the president's first direct comment on the issue since a stinging report from the U.S. Department of Justice released Jan. 13 that found Chicago police routinely used excessive force and violated the civil rights of citizens, particularly in the mostly minority communities that are hardest hit by violence.

In fact, the report specifically said that overly harsh policing tactics did more harm than good, making residents feel like the police were an "occupying force."

Jonathan Smith, former head of special litigation for the Justice Department, told the Tribune on Wednesday that in Chicago and other cities, federal help to combat gun violence has come in the form of a "surge" of federal agents to work on task forces with local police. But those are short-term solutions at best, he said, and bringing in the National Guard would be even more unsustainable.

"To solve a public safety problem, troops are not the answer," Smith said. "Is (Trump) going to put National Guard troops on every corner for the next two years? It's a long-term problem that needs long-term solutions."

Trump's tweet came just four days after he took the oath of office and referred back to a line from his inaugural address Friday citing the "American carnage" left behind by crime, gangs and drugs.

Last year, Chicago experienced its worst violence in two decades — with more than 4,300 people shot and 762 killed, according to official Police Department statistics. And the violence has continued at comparable levels so far in January.

The issue was being debated in a Fox News segment Tuesday night that cited numbers from a Tribune analysis of homicides and shootings. Less than an hour later, Trump tweeted: "If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible 'carnage' going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!"

The chain reaction Trump's words set off illustrated how even from the Oval Office he has continued to use social media to set his agenda, regardless of the complexity or sensitivity of the subject matter.

It seemed to catch police brass in Chicago off-guard. In an exclusive telephone interview with the Tribune on Wednesday morning, Johnson said he was baffled by the meaning of the president's words.

If it meant a mobilization of National Guard troops, Johnson said he would be opposed.

"They're not trained for this type of action," he said, noting in addition that federal troops may not have the power to make arrests.

Johnson said he does not oppose increased assistance from the federal government — whether that would mean more agents from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or more help geared toward youth living in Chicago's most violent neighborhoods.

"We would use (federal funding for) mentorship programs, after-school programs," he said. "Those are the things I think we can use."

Trump's tweet also prompted phones to light up Wednesday at the Chicago FBI office and the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, where national reporters were calling seeking reaction.

In response, the Chicago FBI put out a general statement saying the agency "works closely" with state, local and federal partners "to combat violent crime."

The U.S. attorney's office had no comment.

The tweet was also being talked about Wednesday in some of Chicago's hardest-hit communities. The Rev. Marshall Hatch, who heads New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park, said he'd welcome any kind of help kick-starting economic recovery. But adding more military-style policing to a neighborhood where Chicago police are already seen as aggressive and disconnected from residents would be a recipe for disaster, he said.

"We don't want martial law," Hatch said. "If the president means more resources to deal with some of the socio-economic issues, if the president means more resources with the plan to hire more police that could be part of the community, then that is the kind of help that could make sense. But not sending in the National Guard."

Although it's difficult to pull context out of a 140-character tweet, Trump's words, to some, belied the fact that "the Feds" have been deeply involved in the gun violence issue for years.

Agencies like the FBI, ATF and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration devote significant resources to going after gun offenders, often partnering with Chicago police in task forces designed to get the most violent criminals off the streets. In recent years, federal prosecutors have stepped up collaborative efforts with the Cook County state's attorney's office to determine where certain gun cases should be brought to maximize potential sentences.

But many experts warned that while smart and aggressive policing can help stem the tide for a time, in the end it's a complex social justice problem entrenched in neighborhoods where joblessness and hopelessness have existed for generations.

Since taking over as Chicago's top federal prosecutor in 2013, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon has repeatedly tempered expectations about how much of a dent federal authorities can make with limited resources.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of the gang problem that we have in the city of Chicago," Fardon said.

Meanwhile, a report released this week that surveyed police chiefs across the country found that a "surge" of federal agents is low on the list of help they want to address violent crime. In the report, released by the Police Foundation and Major Cities Chiefs Association, "short-term surges of federal law enforcement staffing" was ranked second-to-last in a list of 17 ways the federal government could help local cops fight gun violence.

Instead, the chiefs were looking for more tools — like ballistics imaging and gun tracing — to fight crime, the report said.

The report also noted that budgets and salaries for the agencies charged with fighting crime — including the DEA and ATF — have "only grown modestly" since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement resources have grown considerably.

Though the White House seemed to tamp down any immediate plan to put boots on the ground in Chicago, it wouldn't be the first time that calling up the National Guard has been discussed in the face of the city's persistent gun violence.

In 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said violent crime was "out of control" and "reaching epidemic proportions" in certain neighborhoods while suggesting the National Guard and Illinois State Police could help.

Two years later, when the city's homicide rate rose slightly over the previous year, two Democratic state legislators suggested Gov. Pat Quinn dispatch the National Guard to Chicago, even though the number of shootings was actually down from earlier in the decade. Quinn downplayed the idea, saying it could be counterproductive to police efforts and that local law enforcement was trained differently than military personnel.

Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley also shot down the suggestion as too simplistic.

More recently, in the wake of the brutal 2015 killing of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee, an online petition to call up the National Guard was circulated on the grass-roots website change.org that garnered thousands of signatures.

The issue was again in the news last August, the city's deadliest month in 23 years. South Side Rev. Michael Pfleger called for Gov. Bruce Rauner to declare a state of emergency due to the violence. But when a reporter suggested to Rauner that residents were in favor of troops being deployed, the governor ruled out the idea, saying that doing so would be an "emotional" reaction that "wouldn't make sense."

There's also a question of how such a deployment would take shape. Although the National Guard is deployed during natural disasters or in the event of civil unrest, it's typically at the invitation of local officials.

If Trump were to deploy troops to address Chicago's gun violence, it would be "highly unusual and almost surely unconstitutional," said Ronald Allen, a law professor at Northwestern University.

©2017 the Chicago Tribune

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