WASHINGTON — Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions is sending five federal prosecutors to Chicago to focus on gun crimes as his department filed a brief Friday opposing a proposed police department consent decree as expensive unneeded “micromanagement.”
That caps a week of intense focus on Chicago crime from President Donald Trump and his Justice Department.
On Monday, Trump said an agreement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the police department to curb stop and frisk abuses was “terrible,” and on Thursday, in an extraordinary Oval Office meeting, talked about Chicago crime with rapper Kanye West, who was raised on the South Side.
The two actions on Friday were not unexpected, with the Justice Department on Tuesday announcing its intention to oppose the consent decree.
The pending decree was spawned in the last weeks of the Obama administration, stemming from police misconduct allegations surfacing after the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald.
Consent decrees can “strip local government officials of the flexibility they need to address evolving issues and can deprive the local populace of the ability to control their policies through the democratic process,” the Justice Department said in a brief signed by Sessions; John Gore, the acting chief of the Civil Rights Division; and Chicago’s top federal prosecutor, U.S. Attorney John Lausch, a Trump appointee.
Noting Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term, the brief states the “problem” of binding the hands of local officials “is even more acute when a mayor who is not running for re-election will sign the proposed consent decree on one of his final days in office.”
The brief said the 2015 pact between the ACLU and the Chicago Police Department “significantly contributed” to a “shocking homicide rise.”
Karen Sheley, director of the Police Practices Project for the ACLU of Illinois, said in a statement: “The Trump Administration, by filing an opposition to long-needed reform of the Chicago Police Department, is making a last-minute political play at the expense of real people in our city.”
Chicago homicides spiked in 2016, declined in 2017 and are also down so far in 2018. The brief does not mention that decline.
Sessions’ Friday statement said: “There is one government institution, and one alone, that has the ability to make Chicago safer — that is the Chicago Police Department. Our goal should be to empower it to fulfill its duties, not to restrict its proper functioning or excessively demean the entire Department for the errors of a few. Make no mistake: unjustified restrictions on proper policing and disrespect for our officers directly led to this tragic murder surge in Chicago.
“At a fundamental level, there is a misperception that police are the problem and that their failures, their lack of training, and their abuses create crime.
“But the truth is the police are the solution to crime, and criminals are the problem,” Session said, calling the ACLU agreement a “folly.”
The Trump administration argues that Chicago cops became reluctant to stop and frisk potential criminals for fear of getting in trouble.
But those stops have been rising in Chicago over the past two years — even though they remain far below pre-2016 levels. This year, through Sept. 30, cops have made 102,663 such stops, according to CPD. That’s a 22 percent increase from 2017, something Sessions doesn’t mention.
A hearing on the pending Chicago consent decree is set for Oct. 24-25 at the Dirksen Federal Building.
Emanuel spokesman Matt McGrath issued a statement: “We’ll definitely appreciate additional resources to hold gun offenders accountable, but we don’t appreciate efforts — even a half-hearted one like this legal brief — to impede our public safety reforms or inhibit our efforts to rebuild the bonds of trust between officers and residents.”
Adding five prosecutors
Though the Justice Department branded the five new staffers as part of a “new Chicago gun crimes prosecution team,” federal prosecutors have been pursuing gun crimes in the Chicago area for years.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago employs a total of 158 prosecutors, according to office spokesman Joseph Fitzpatrick.
Of those, about 60 prosecutors handle gun cases specifically. They’re in the violent crime, general crime, and narcotics and money-laundering sections.
“We welcome the additional resources to continue our fight against violent crime,” Fitzpatrick.
Shooting incidents are down 19 percent in the Englewood police district and 23 percent in Deering, both on the South Side, so far this year.
Sessions tied those violence reductions to the Trump administration’s 2017 hiring of 21 extra ATF agents in Chicago, but the police department has thrown other resources at the gun problem, too.
Englewood and Deering were among the first districts to get Strategic Decision Support Centers, which gather human intelligence from the street along with data from video cameras and gunshot detectors.
Sessions even toured one of the centers — in the Harrison District on the West Side — earlier this year.
Main reported from Chicago.