Trump has repeatedly invoked the bloodshed in Chicago while on the campaign trail, part of an overall effort he has made to frame himself as the candidate of law and order in his race against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. During public appearances and on social media, Trump repeatedly — and oftentimes misleadingly — cites crime levels and describes a country beset by violence and lawlessness.
In particular, he has referenced Chicago and the gun violence there, using the city as a synecdoche for rising homicide levels in some cities across the country. Last week, during an appearance on Fox News, Trump again talked about Chicago and claimed that an unnamed “top police officer” in the city had told him that there was a way to stop the violence in a week. (The Chicago police said that neither Trump nor anyone from his campaign met with any senior command staff; a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign declined to identify this officer, only describing him as a “private individual.”)
On Sunday, during a news conference discussing the two brothers charged in the shooting death of Nykea Aldridge, cousin of NBA star Dwyane Wade, the Chicago police superintendent was asked about Trump’s comments.
“If you have a magic bullet to stop the violence anywhere, not just in Chicago but in America, then please, share it with us,” Superintendent Eddie Johnson, the city’s actual top police officer, said at the briefing. “We’d be glad to take that information and stop this violence.”
Trump had injected himself into the coverage of Aldridge’s death after she was shot and killed Friday. Aldridge was killed while pushing a stroller on a sidewalk in the city, and officials said she was not the target of the shooting, but was instead inadvertently struck by bullets aimed at someone else. Her death drew more national media attention than others in the city, owing in part to Wade, her famous relative, and in part because she was a mother pushing a baby when she got caught in the crossfire.
On Saturday, Trump responded to her death by saying on Twitter that it was “just what I have been saying” and that as a result, African American voters would vote for him.
Hours after first posting that sentiment, and after much criticism, Trump’s account deleted his original tweet and reposted the same message, because the original tweet had misspelled Wade’s first name. Only then, and from a different device, did his Twitter account post a message of condolences for Aldridge’s relatives.
On Monday morning, Trump posted on Twitter about crime in inner cities “reaching record levels,” which is untrue. While killings have increased in major cities across the country this year — as they did last year — crime rates still remain far below what they were just a few decades ago.
Take Chicago, the city so often name-checked by Trump, and a place where many residents are deeply worried about the level of violent crime. The surge in homicides this year has put the city on pace to end up with more than 600 homicides in 2016, the first time it would top that number since 2003. That increase is dramatic, but would not approach “record levels.” Between 1990 and 1995, there were at least 800 homicide victims each year in the city.
In New York City, homicides so far in 2016 are even with last year but still far below levels seen a quarter-century ago. In 1990, there were 2,262 murders in New York City; last year, there were 352, according to the police department.
Homicides are up slightly in Los Angeles and Philadelphia so far this year, but not anywhere near historic levels. There were 983 homicides in Los Angeles in 1990, a number that ticked up in the early part of that decade, while last year there were 283 killings. Philadelphia saw 500 homicides in 1990, which police say was that city’s peak; last year, the police said there were 280 homicide victims.
While homicides were indeed up in a number of cities last year, just three cities — Chicago, Baltimore and Washington — accounted for more than half of the overall increase across the major cities that saw spikes.
Criminologists caution against drawing sweeping conclusions from limited data so far. Experts, the FBI director and police chiefs across the country differ on what has caused violence to spike in some cities from coast to coast, with suggestions ranging from gang violence to drug violence to fears that police are stepping back from policing because of heightened scrutiny. In Chicago, police say they are trying to deal with the number of illegal guns on the city’s streets, targeting gang members with raids and beefing up community policing.
Trump’s commentary about crime has been a recurring part of his campaign, threaded into his frequent discussions of immigration, terrorism and President Obama. When he accepted the Republican nomination in Cleveland last month, Trump said that “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation” would end after his inauguration.
Less clear, though, is what a President Trump would plan to do to combat crime in the United States, which is largely handled at a local level. He recently answered questions from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a group representing more than 27,000 chiefs nationwide, but as my colleague Tom Jackman explained at True Crime, this did not provide much clarity:
Trump’s four-page response does not go into great detail about how he would lower crime or improve police legitimacy in tense communities, though he repeatedly expresses the philosophy that “law enforcement is a state and local issue for the most part and should be dealt with at the appropriate level.” …Asked about their number one law enforcement and criminal justice priority, Trump wrote that his administration “will be focused on restoring the rule of law in the United States. Selective enforcement of laws has led to a more dangerous society and the vilification of local law enforcement must come to an end.” Asked about plans to lower crime, Trump wrote, “the law of the land will be enforced, starting with federal statutes that encompass illegal immigration, drug trafficking and human trafficking.”
During his Fox News appearance where he mentioned the “top police officer” in Chicago who said he could stop crime in a week, Trump said, “I believed him 100 percent.” The presidential candidate did not, however, say that he knew how the officer would accomplish that task. When asked by host Bill O’Reilly, Trump said: “No, I didn’t ask him. Because I’m not the mayor of Chicago.” Later in that same discussion, Trump did not specifically say what he would do as president to change local policing policies.
“All I can do is, from the top, I would be very, very strong in terms of being a cheerleader for the police,” he said. “They do a great job and they are not recognized for it.”
This post has been updated since it was first published.