Twice this month, President Trump has asserted that Chicago may need federal help to combat a surge in violence. And twice this month, Trump invoked the possibility without offering any specifics.
Trump’s tweet on Tuesday night that he would “send in the Feds!” if the city couldn’t fight the bloodshed — apparently sent after he saw it mentioned on Fox News — was met with bafflement by the city’s top police officer.
This latest comment from Trump, who campaigned as the candidate of “law and order” and has pledged to combat violence and support police, raised more questions than it offered answers about how that would translate on a local law enforcement level. Determining Trump’s intent is also unclear because there are already federal resources on the ground in Chicago, the country’s third-largest city.
“We always have been here,” said David Coulson, a spokesman for the Chicago field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “We work very closely with the Chicago Police Department.”
There are “multiple federal task forces” involving agents working alongside Chicago police officers, according to a department spokesman, who added that they “welcome any effort to add to or strengthen that partnership.”
Chicago has struggled to fight a wave of violence that pushed the death toll last year to its highest mark in two decades, with 762 homicides for all of 2016 — more than the combined death toll in New York and Los Angeles, the only cities with more residents. Police have pointed to illegal guns and gang activity and have called for people convicted of gun crimes to face tougher sentences.
The FBI participates in several task forces in Chicago, and — given the city’s particular struggles — the bureau’s field office there considers combating violent crime an extremely high priority.
Agents work alongside local police on a gang task force, a Safe Streets task force, a violent crime task force and even a cold case homicide task force, which was formed specifically to solve old cases, said Special Agent Garrett Croon, a spokesman for the FBI’s Chicago Field Office.
Trump’s tweet reverberated in Chicago, leaving city leaders and others wondering what he meant — and how to take his message, one of many the president has apparently dashed off in response to what he saw on television.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 25, 2017
“The statement is so broad,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told the Chicago Tribune. “I have no idea what he’s talking about.”
During a briefing at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, said that the tweet was about his goal of sending federal resources, adding that Trump hoped to have “a dialogue” with Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D).
“What the president is upset about is turning on the television and seeing Americans get killed in shootings,” Spicer said.
Trump has previously highlighted Chicago’s violence, suggesting last year that police could deal with homicides by being “much tougher.” After his comments, Johnson said that if Trump had “a magic bullet to stop the violence anywhere … then please, share it with us.”
Not long before Trump’s tweet Tuesday night, Emanuel — a former top aide in the Obama White House — had already discussed options for increased federal aid during a local television interview.
Emanuel said there was “a lot the federal government can do” to help curb the violence. During the interview with WTTW, he pointed to federal help tracking illegal guns and prosecuting these cases, increased gun control measures and “help [paying for] additional police officers.” On Wednesday, Emanuel said that Chicago would welcome more federal help from law enforcement agencies.
(A day before Trump’s tweet, Emanuel had sharply criticized Trump for the president’s repeated focus on the crowd size at his inauguration. These comments that were on the front page of Tuesday’s Chicago Sun-Times and did not go unnoticed outside Chicago. Hours before the Fox News segment about Chicago violence that Trump apparently saw, a different host on the network told Emanuel to “shut up” and told him to resign.)
In a statement late Tuesday, Johnson, the police superintendent, echoed Emanuel’s comments and said that his department was “more than willing to work with the federal government to build on our partnerships with DOJ, FBI, DEA and ATF and boost federal prosecution rates for gun crimes in Chicago.”
Police said that through Tuesday night, there were 38 murders in the city, up from 33 at the same point last year, and that there were 182 shootings by that point both years.
Should the Trump administration seek more involvement in fighting the gun violence in Chicago, one possible option could center on the FBI. The bureau frequently partners with local jurisdictions on various crime-fighting initiatives, including to help solve homicides.
In early 2011, when Prince George’s County, Md., had 13 homicides in as many days, the bureau embedded agents with homicide squads to help solve and stop the violence. The FBI has dedicated 10 agents to regularly work alongside detectives in Oakland, Calif., to help investigate active and cold-case homicides
Supervisory Special Agent Russell Nimmo, who leads the Safe Streets Task Force in Oakland, said the idea was hatched after a December 2013 incident in which a man was shot to death in a vehicle in a Walmart parking lot. The case, which was drug-related, had local and federal investigators work closely, and eventually they brought federal charges, Nimmo said.
“I think both parties really realized how effective that case was,” Nimmo said.
Lt. Robert Rosin, who leads the Oakland Police Department’s homicide section, said federal and local leaders soon decided to make the partnership formal and permanent, and now FBI agents work with Oakland homicide investigators from the moment someone is killed. The arrangement gives the department access to the FBI’s evidence-processing technology and ability to keep witnesses safe in other parts of the country, and agents accompany detectives to scenes, conduct interviews and perform other bread-and-butter investigative tasks.
“That’s how it looks for us in Oakland,” Rosin said.
Rosin said he believes Oakland police have seen a decrease in violent crime, and have solved more homicides, at least in-part because of the partnership. According to police department data, violent crime has dropped from 2014 to 2016. Homicides have ticked up slightly in the past three years: the department recorded 79 in 2014, 83 in 2015 and 85 in 2016. The percentage of cases solved rose from 51 percent in 2014 to 55 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2016, according to data provided by the department.
The partnership is somewhat novel, Nimmo said, in that it has continued through the years. While the FBI has task forces with local police throughout the country, he said, it is rare for agents to actually embed with homicide detectives.
Croon, the FBI spokesman in Chicago, said he couldn’t speak specifically to plans to expand federal involvement there. In response to questions about the president’s tweet, the bureau’s Chicago Field Office issued a statement essentially noting the work agents already do.
“FBI Chicago works closely with our local, state, and federal partners to combat violent crime,” the statement said. “FBI Chicago continually provides resources to this effort and encourages the public to contact law enforcement if they have information relating to violence in their neighborhood.”
Coulson said his ATF office had not heard about any increase in resources under the Trump administration. But he pointed to numerous agencies already involved in fighting crime around Chicago, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Homeland Security Investigations arm of the Homeland Security Department as well as the FBI.
“I know it kind of was inferred there hasn’t been a presence here, but the DEA, FBI, HSI, all the federal agencies, law enforcement components, are working hand in hand with Chicago P.D. and within the city,” he said. “This is years and years in the making.”
Another question left behind by Trump’s comments was whether he was referring to the National Guard. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has resisted calls to declare a state of emergency or bring in the Illinois National Guard, saying such responses “wouldn’t make sense,” and he reiterated his opposition to that on Wednesday.
Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, a spokesman for the Illinois National Guard, said he was “not going to comment on the president’s tweet.” But in his view, “the feds does not mean the Illinois National Guard,” Leighton said.
While the president technically has the authority to activate the guard without the governor’s consent under a federal law known as the Insurrection Act, that law essentially requires him to be putting down a rebellion to do so.
The law states that the president can “call into Federal service such of the militia of any State” if he “considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States.”
President John F. Kennedy famously invoked the law in a showdown with Alabama Gov. George Wallace when Wallace tried to physically block two black students from entering the University of Alabama. The governor eventually stepped aside after he was ordered by the guard general to do so.
This post has been updated.
John Wagner contributed to this report.