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Painting Bleak Portrait of Urban Crime, Trump Sends More Agents to Chicago and Other Cities

2020-07-23 01:07:34
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WASHINGTON — President 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.

Mr. Trump, who has sought to make “law and order” a campaign theme and has denounced “Democrat-run cities” as he seeks re-election, 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 Mr. Trump, Attorney General William P. Barr said the Justice Department would send roughly 200 additional agents to Chicago and about 35 to Albuquerque to bolster violent crime task forces that already work with local police.

The surge will build on previously announced plans to send about 200 agents to Kansas City, Mo., 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, Ore., in the name of protecting federal buildings from vandalism.

Mr. 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.

“This is different than the operations and tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence,” he said. “And we’re going to continue to confront mob violence. But the operations we are discussing today are very different — they are classic crime fighting.”

Chad F. Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, also sought to “clearly make a distinction” between agents’ work in Portland and the plans announced on 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, Mr. Barr joined Mr. Trump in blaming politics for a recent rise in crime rates, although they remain far lower than what 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,” Mr. Barr declared.

The additional agents will be reassigned from other tasks at Justice Department agencies like the F.B.I., the Drug Enforcement Administration, the United States Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as will law enforcement officials from the Department of Homeland Security, Mr. Barr said.

He 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 there.

Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. Trump trying to make political hay of bashing Democratic elected officials, and coming against the backdrop of the disputed intervention 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, Mr. Barr said, adding that “to give you an idea of what’s possible, the F.B.I. 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 Mr. Barr appeared to be referring to data in Kansas City from an earlier surge of federal agents, called Operation Relentless Pursuit, since Mr. 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 E. Lightfoot, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, said that the plans Mr. 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,” Ms. 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.


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