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In executive actions, President Trump vows crackdown on violent crime. Is America as unsafe as he thinks?

President Trump watches as Jeff Sessions, alongside his wife, Mary, is sworn in as attorney general by Vice President  Pence. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump signed three executive actions Thursday designed to crack down on violence in America, directing the Department of Justice to form a task force and take other steps to target criminal gangs and reduce violent crime and crime against police.

Trump has long held a pessimistic view of how safe people are in the U.S., declaring in his inaugural address that the “American carnage” would stop with his presidency. As his new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was sworn in Thursday, Trump said he was signing the executive actions to “restore safety in America.”

“First, I’m directing Department of Justice & Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people, many other people,” Trump said. “Secondly, I’m directing Department of Justice to form a task force on reducing violent crime in America. And thirdly, I’m directing the Department of Justice to implement a plan to stop crime and crimes of violence against law enforcement officers.”

But Trump has, in the past, misstated crime statistics or not presented them in the proper context, presenting a somewhat bleaker view than perhaps is warranted. He has accurately cited a statistic from the Brennan Center for Justice, which found that, in the largest 30 cities, homicides increased by 14 percent from 2015 to 2016. But in that data set, one outlier city — Chicago — was responsible for 43.7 percent of the total increase in homicide rates in 2016.

Fact-checking Trump’s rhetoric on crime and the ‘American carnage’

The latest FBI data show a more than 10 percent increase in murder and non-negligent manslaughter from 2014 to 2015. But the murder rate is down even from as recently as 2009, and it has been declining — with a few upward blips — since the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s.

Violent crime and murders both went up in 2015, FBI says

Civil liberties groups criticized the executive orders as responses to a non-existent problem.

“President Trump intends to build task forces to investigate and stop national trends that don’t exist,” said ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jeffery Robinson. “We have seen historic lows in the country’s crime rate and a downward trend in killings against police officers since the 1980s. The president not only doesn’t acknowledge these facts about our nation’s safety, he persists in ignoring the all-too-real deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement.”

Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, Co-Director of Human Rights Watch’s U.S. program, said, “The executive orders President Trump signed today on criminal justice are premised on a distortion of reality that will ultimately be counterproductive. Smart public safety policies should be based on the realities that communities, law enforcement, and victims face, so that resources are used wisely. Far from soaring, overall crime rates have decreased steadily in recent decades, though homicide rates in several major cities have increased and require thoughtful attention.”

Sessions said in his own remarks that America had “a crime problem,” and it was no mere anomaly.

“I wish the rise that we are seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip,” he said. “My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous, permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk. We will deploy the talents and abilities of the Department of Justice in the most effective way possible to confront this rise in crime and to protect the people of our country.”

Sessions mentioned violent crime in his remarks even before terrorism, indicating just how high a priority it might become in his Justice Department.

Trump issued executive orders on three topics — gangs, violent crime in general, and violence against police particularly. They contained mostly broad directives, which Sessions presumably will be left to implement.

On crime in general, Trump ordered the creation of a task force to study existing laws and crime data collection and “develop strategies to reduce crime.” The task force is to submit a report to him within a year.  On gangs, he ordered beefed up enforcement and the issuance of once quarterly public reports “detailing convictions in the United States relating to transnational criminal organizations and their subsidiaries” He asked for a broader progress report for himself in 120 days.

Trump says he may send ‘the feds’ to Chicago. Federal agents are already there.

On violence against police, Trump ordered prosecutors to develop a strategy to use existing laws to prosecute those who harm law enforcement officers and to “review existing Federal laws to determine whether those laws are adequate to address the protection” of police. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, there were 135 officers killed in 2016, up from 123 the year before, and 64 were shot and killed, up from 41 the year before.

“It’s a shame what’s been happening to our great, truly great, law enforcement officers,” Trump said. “That’s going to stop, as of today.”

Trump has cast himself as a pro-law enforcement candidate since the campaign trail. Some advocates worry that he is not adequately concerned, though, with police abuses and those killed by police.

Some cities in recent years, including Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Charlotte, have seen protests and violence erupt after incidents of black men being killed at the hands of law enforcement officers. The Justice Department under President Barack Obama sent mediators to those cities to try to keep the peace. The Obama administration also aggressively investigated the police with systemic reviews of entire departments to address the root cause of conflict between law enforcement and residents.

Neither Trump nor his attorney general mentioned such investigations at the swearing-in ceremony. On the White House website, the Trump administration has hinted at a crackdown on protests. “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter,” the site says.

Sessions, though, did note another issue of importance to him: immigration. That is significant, as the Justice Department is in the midst of a heated court battle to defend Trump’s now-frozen executive order barring refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

“We need a lawful system of immigration — one that serves the interests of the people of the United States,” Sessions said. “That’s not wrong, that’s not immoral, that’s not indecent. We admit a million people a year plus, lawfully, and we need to end this lawlessness that threatens the public safety, pulls down wages of working Americans.”

This post was updated after the full text of the executive orders was released, and to include comments from civil liberties groups.