President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr announced Wednesday that federal agents will surge into Chicago and Albuquerque to help combat rising crime, expanding the administration’s intervention in local enforcement as Trump runs for reelection under a “law-and-order” mantle.
Hundreds of federal agents have already been sent to Kansas City, Mo., to help quell a record rise in violence after the shooting death of a young boy there. Sending federal agents to help localities is not uncommon. Barr announced a similar surge effort in December for seven cities that had seen spiking violence.
Usually, the Justice Department sends agents under its own umbrella, like agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Drug Enforcement Agency. But this surge effort will include at least 100 Department of Homeland Security Investigations officers working in the region who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations.
DHS officers have already been dispatched to Portland, Ore., and other localities to protect federal property and monuments as Trump has lambasted efforts by protesters to knock down Confederate statues.
Gov. JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot cautioned they wouldn’t support federal agents being dispatched to independently patrol Chicago’s streets, or make arrests of protesters as had happened in Portland.
Pritzker Wednesday said he welcomed federal help, if they’re supporting existing federal and local law enforcement.
“I welcome the support for our local and state efforts to reduce crime,” Pritzker said at an unrelated press conference Wednesday, before the president’s address. “But it’s this other thing that’s going on, where people are wearing camouflaged uniforms with no identification about who they are claiming to be protecting federal buildings when in fact they’re going blocks and blocks away from federal buildings to do things like throw people into vans and arrest them without telling them why they’re being arrested and then keeping them for hours before letting them go. That is not something that is acceptable in the State of Illinois or the City of Chicago.”
Trump has linked the growing violence in the streets with protests over racial injustice, though criminal justice experts say the spike defies easy explanation, pointing to the unprecedented moment the country is living through — a pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Americans, historic unemployment, stay-at-home orders, a mass reckoning over race and police brutality, intense stress and even the weather. And compared with other years, crime is down overall.
Local authorities have complained that the surges in federal agents have only exacerbated tensions on the streets.
Speaking shortly after the president’s announcement, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she welcomed the support of the federal government as long as it remains a partnership and doesn’t mirror the situation in Portland.
“I’m glad to see the president got the message,” the mayor said late Wednesday at her regularly scheduled post-City Council press conference.
“If those agents are here to actually work in partnership on support of [addressing] gun violence and violent cases, plugging into existing infrastructure of federal agents, not trying to play police in our streets, then that’s something different,” the mayors said. “And that may add value, but the proof is going to be in the pudding.”
Lightfoot again warned that she doesn’t want to see a secret paramilitary force patrolling the streets of Chicago, saying that’s the job of the Chicago Police Department.
“I’ve been very clear — not happening in Chicago. We don’t need federal troops, we don’t need unnamed secret federal agents roaming around the streets of Chicago, taking our residence without cause and violating their basic constitutional rights,” Lighfoot said.
As the mayor of one of the country’s first Sanctuary Cities for immigrants, Lightfoot criticized the Trump Administration for threatening to hold grant dollars from cities that don’t comply with his efforts to crackdown on undocumented residents.
“We will never, ever, ever, retreat from the fact that we are a welcoming sanctuary city, and we stand with our immigrant and refugee communities,” she added.
Asked to comment on President Trump’s focus on specific victims of Chicago’s gun violence in his afternoon briefing, Lightfoot shrugged it off, saying the president is in campaign mode, pushing a message that he’s the “law and order” candidate.
“He fundamentally doesn’t care, he doesn’t get it, what he cares most about is himself,” Lightfoot said. “What he cares most about is trying to change the subject from the failure of his leadership on an issue of a pandemic of our lifetime, where people are suffering.”
The decision to dispatch federal agents to American cities is playing out at a hyper-politicized moment when Trump is trying to show he is a “law-and-order” president and painting Democratic-led cities as out of control. With less than four months to go before Election Day, Trump has been serving up dire warnings that the violence would worsen if his Democratic rival Joe Biden is elected in November, as he tries to win over voters who could be swayed by that message.
But civil unrest in Portland only escalated after federal agents there were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause.
The spike in crime has hit hard in some cities with resources already stretched thin from the pandemic. But the move to send in federal forces was initially rejected by local leaders.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot later said she and other local officials had spoken with federal authorities and come to an understanding.
“I’ve been very clear that we welcome actual partnership,” the Democratic mayor said Tuesday after speaking with federal officials. “But we do not welcome dictatorship. We do not welcome authoritarianism, and we do not welcome unconstitutional arrest and detainment of our residents. That is something I will not tolerate.”
In New Mexico, meanwhile, Democratic elected officials were cautioning Trump against any possible plans to send federal agents to the state, with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich calling on Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales, who will be at the White House on Wednesday, to resign.
“Instead of collaborating with the Albuquerque Police Department, the Sheriff is inviting the President’s stormtroopers into Albuquerque,” the Democratic senator said in a statement.
But federal gun crimes generally carry much stiffer penalties than state crimes — and larger-scale federal investigations that can cross state lines tend to make a big impact.
The Justice Department will reimburse Chicago $3.5 million for local law enforcement’s work on the federal task force. Through a separate federal fund, Chicago received $9.3 million to hire 75 new officers.
Two dozen agents will be sent to Albuquerque, and the administration made available $1.5 million in funding for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department for five new deputies and $9.4 million for 40 new Albuquerque officers.
In Kansas City, the top federal prosecutor said any agents involved in an operation to reduce violent crime in the area will be clearly identifiable when making arrests, unlike what has been seen in Portland.
“These agents won’t be patrolling the streets,” U.S. Attorney Timothy Garrison said. “They won’t replace or usurp the authority of local officers.”
Operation Legend — named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot while sleeping in a Kansas City apartment late last month — was announced on July 8. The first arrest came earlier this week.
Garrison has said that the additional 225 federal agents from the FBI, DEA, ATF and the U.S. Marshals Service join 400 agents already working and living in the Kansas City area.
The Trump administration is facing growing pushback in Portland. Multiple lawsuits have been filed questioning the federal government’s authority to use broad policing powers in cities. One suit filed Tuesday says federal agents are violating protesters’ 10th Amendment rights by engaging in police activities designated to local and state governments.
Oregon’s attorney general sued last week, asking a judge to block federal agents’ actions. The state argued that masked agents had arrested people on the streets without probable cause and far from the U.S. courthouse that’s become a target of vandalism.
Federal authorities, however, said state and local officials had been unwilling to work with them to stop the vandalism and violence against federal officers and the U.S. courthouse.
WBEZ reporters Tony Arnold and Claudia Morell contributed. Associated Press writers Michael Tarm and Michael Balsamo contributed.