The Chicago police and federal authorities announced Friday an effort aimed at cracking down on gun crimes in the violence-plagued city.
Officials say this effort will combine police officers, state troopers, federal agents and state and federal prosecutors to target illegal guns and repeat gun offenders, which authorities in Chicago have long pointed to as causes of the city’s bloodshed. The announcement Friday comes at the beginning of the July 4 holiday weekend, typically among the deadliest periods in Chicago, which in recent years has struggled with surging levels of gun violence.
The Department of Justice provided new details regarding the creation of a Crime Gun Strike Force, a local-federal partnership that had previously been announced. The team, which began its work on June 1, consists of 20 Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents, six intelligence research specialists, 12 Chicago PD officers, two state police officers and four ballistics specialists, DOJ said.
“The Trump Administration will not let the bloodshed go on; we cannot accept these levels of violence,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. “That’s why, under President Trump’s strong leadership, we have created the Chicago Gun Strike Force and are sending 20 more permanent ATF agents to Chicago, reallocating federal prosecutors and prioritizing prosecutions to reduce gun violence, and working with our law enforcement partners to stop the lawlessness.”
On Friday morning, hours before the announcement, President Trump issued a statement on Twitter saying that the violence has “reached such epidemic proportions that I am sending in Federal help.”
Crime and killings in Chicago have reached such epidemic proportions that I am sending in Federal help. 1714 shootings in Chicago this year!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2017
Chicago had 762 homicides last year, more than the combined gun-related death toll in New York and Los Angeles, the only two larger American cities, and the number of shootings has remained high this year.
During a brief press briefing on Friday afternoon, a CBS reporter brought up the president’s tweet that morning about Chicago and asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders if the crime problem in Chicago is at least in part “a gun control problem or a firearm-access control problem.”
“I think that the problem there is pretty clear, that it’s a crime problem. I think that the crime is probably driven more by morality than anything else. So I think that this is a law enforcement issue,” Sanders said, saying that the administration has been trying to add additional law enforcement support.
When asked about the comment later in the afternoon, Sanders said that her comment should not be considered a new White House policy and that the president has no plans to crack down on immorality in Chicago. She said that when she was asked what was causing crime, she responded that it’s a “basically a lack of morality, but that’s not a public policy.”
Trump has repeatedly pointed to the bloodshed in Chicago, weighing in during the campaign and since taking office. In January, Trump tweeted that he would “send in the feds,” which prompted some uncertainty in Chicago, where considerable federal resources were already on the ground and regularly collaborating with police.
“We always have been here,” David Coulson, a spokesman for the Chicago field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said at the time. “We work very closely with the Chicago Police Department.”
Trump’s past comments on the city have been critical of the local police and other local officials, including his January suggestion that the violence is “very easily fixable” and that local authorities were “not doing the job.”
His remarks have drawn some pointed responses from the local police. After he mentioned Chicago’s violence in February, Eddie Johnson — the city’s police superintendent — said he hoped the Trump administration would “finally respond” to local requests for more help. Last year, after then-candidate Trump suggested the violence in Chicago could be stopped in days, Johnson said police would welcome whatever “magic bullet” Trump had.
Local officials, in response to Trump’s earlier comments, have said they had asked his administration for more help tracking illegal guns and for more federal gun prosecutions.
“More than just a new strategy or tactic, we are foundationally changing the way we fight crime in Chicago,” Johnson said in a statement. “This new strike force will significantly help our police officers stem the flow of illegal guns and create a culture of accountability for the small subset of individuals and gangs who disproportionally drive violence in our city.”
Johnson said that the ultimate goal is to make Chicago safer by combining “tech-based nerve centers” in the city tracking gunshots and crimes with harsher penalties and prosecutions for people accused of gun crimes and homicides. The Chicago Police Department’s Organized Crime Bureau and the ATF’s Chicago Field Office will work with the team, as will prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office as well as the state’s attorney’s office.
Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced plans to send more federal resources to 12 cities to help combat violence. Chicago was not among the cities in that group, which officials said would be expanded later this year.
-Jenna Johnson contributed to this report