Federal options on Chicago crime limited despite Trump tweet

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Police investigate a homicide in the 5000 block of West Maypole early Monday. | NVP News

President Donald Trump is again warning Chicago about its high number of homicide, saying on Twitter that he is ready to “send in the Feds” if the nation’s third largest city can’t reduce the number of killings on its own.

Trump tweeted Tuesday night: “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!”

Earlier this month, before he took office, Trump tweeted that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel should ask for federal help if he isn’t able to bring down the homicide rate. Last year, the death toll soared to 762 — the most killings in the city in nearly two decades and more than New York and Los Angeles combined.

Emanuel, in an interview with a local TV station Tuesday before word spread of Trump’s latest tweet, said about a Washington role: “There’s a lot the federal government can do.” That, he said, could include federal money to help hire more police officers.

Trump has offered no specifics, but many steps he could potentially contemplate pose practical and even constitutional obstacles.

Here’s a look at some of the issues:

National Guard

The most direct — and most extreme — intervention would be sending National Guard troops into Chicago. Both the U.S. president and the Illinois governor have the authority to mobilize the Illinois National Guard. But a federal statute, the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, prohibits the deployment of federal troops to do the jobs of domestic police. While a president could seek to use narrow, rarely invoked exceptions in that statute, civil libertarians would likely protest any such move.

When asked in August about the notion of deploying the National Guard in Chicago, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner ruled it out. He said he had discussed the idea with police, community leaders and the National Guard, but concluded “no thoughtful leader thinks that’s a good idea or would really provide a solution.”

Sending armed troops to stand on neighborhood street corners could also undermine what city of Chicago officials have said is a key to improving policing on Chicago’s South and West Sides, where most homicides occur: Building trust between law enforcement and residents in those minority communities.

Justice Department

The federal government’s highest profile intervention in recent years was a yearlong civil-rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department by the Justice Department launched in 2015 under then-President Barack Obama. A damning report released just before Trump’s inauguration cited excessive use of force and other problems that not only violated constitutional rights but hampered crime-fighting. Such findings are supposed to trigger a process that, under Obama, typically led to police-reform plans overseen by a U.S. judge. Some activists worry that Trump — endorsed by Chicago’s police union during the campaign — won’t apply as much pressure on Chicago police to change.

The current U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon in Chicago came under pressure when selected to be the top federal law enforcement official in Chicago three years ago to put violent crime at the top of the city’s agenda. But from the start of his tenure, he tempered expectations, saying repeatedly that communities couldn’t arrest their way out of the problem of violence and that a more holistic approach is required that included addressing that socio-economic factors underpinning crime.

The mayor

Among the list of things Mayor Emanuel told WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” the federal government could do was to devote even more resources to tracking the flow of illegal guns into Chicago from neighboring Indiana, where gun laws aren’t as strict as in Illinois. He also suggested putting more money into federal after-school programs and “investing in neighborhoods that are hard hit by poverty (that) become a breeding ground for violence.”

“Over the years the federal government (has) stepped back their resources, which we have stepped up,” said Emanuel, a Democrat who once worked as Obama’s White House chief of staff. After broaching the issue of social programs, he added: “The federal government can be a partner, and to be honest they haven’t been for decades.”

He said the city has “good relationships” with federal agencies, something Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson echoed in responding directly to Trump’s Tuesday night tweet. Johnson said his department is “more than willing to work with the federal government to build on our partnerships” with the Justice Department, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and others.


Federal prosecutors in Chicago have used racketeering and gun laws to go after gangs, who police blame for much of Chicago’s deadly violence. One of the largest street-gang cases in recent Chicago history wrapped up this month, with jurors convicting the core leadership of the notorious Hobos street gang on trial for an alleged racketeering conspiracy that prosecutors say included at least nine killings. But many gang experts point to an unintended consequence of prosecuting gang leaders: Breaking up a gang’s command structure can often lead to more inter-gang rivalry and, therefore, to even more violence.

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