Trump and Sessions Ignore the Facts in Opposing Chicago Police Reform

Tossing aside conservative notions of federalism, the attorney general wants to dynamite an agreement between the city and the state of Illinois to improve the Chicago police

October 10, 2018

Here’s how the Trump administration snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. On Monday, President Trump flew to Florida to speak to yet another friendly crowd, a gathering of police chiefs, where he promptly repeated a series of easily disprovable lies about policing and gun violence in Chicago. Next, on Tuesday, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, declared that the Justice Department would actively try to subvert the best chance the city has of reforming its addled police force. 

It’s hard to take Trump seriously when he suggests, again, that the feds can unilaterally impose draconian new policing tactics on Chicago residents. But it’s easy to take Sessions seriously when he says the DOJ this week will intercede in a pending court case to try to prevent Chicago and state officials from implementing their own policing reforms. There is nothing rational about the federal government trying to prevent local authorities from trying to fix a local problem. There is everything irrational about a Republican president undermining federalism principles by pretending that he, and Kanye West, know more about Chicago policing than local experts. 

In Trumpland, federal intervention is necessary to block earnest local reform efforts because the murder rate is rising in Chicago. It is rising, Trump’s unfounded theory posits, because of the sinister work of the ACLUwhich negotiated a 2015 settlement with the city about police practices. In Trumpland, the agreement was a sign of weakness. Remember when Trump, early in his presidency, urged cops to rough up suspects?This is that, only on a larger scale.

That’s the line, anyway, that Trump parrots during his stump speeches. It’s the line Sessions parrots in all those speeches he makes to law enforcement officials around the country. In reality, however — that is to say, from the publicly available statistical evidence — the murder rate in Chicago fell 16 percent last year. So far this year, murders are down 19 percent from 2017 in Chicago, with similar declines projected in other cities. Those are the facts that Sessions ignores when he keeps citing 2015 crime statistics. He cites those old numbers because they are the only ones he can cite to make his political point. But in doing so he also ignores that the murder rate in Chicago is down dramatically from the all-time highs of 25 years ago.The same is true of other large cities as well. 

We all can agree there is still far too much gun violence in Chicago. Too many young lives cut short. Too much gang activity. Too few solved murders. Too many communities still distrustful of the police. But things aren’t getting worse, as Trump and Sessions want you to believe. They seem to be getting better. Slowly. Unevenly perhaps. But getting better, for example, without stop-and-frisk policing, which, by the way, even conservatives have come to see as unhelpful —  after their predictions of doom and gloom should stop-and-frisk end in New York proved embarrassingly untrue.

It’s not hard to understand why Trump and Sessions keep pretending that police reforms would jeopardize Chicago public safety. Doing so accomplishes several things at once. They make the city’s Democratic administration look bad. They mock the Obama administration’s reform efforts. They undermine police reform efforts everywhere by decrying them in Chicago. And they please their base of rural or suburban whites who almost certainly never have experienced the unconstitutional policing practices that have ruined the relationship between Chicago police and many of the communities they serve. 

It is in the president’s political interest to ignore the success Chicago has seen in reducing its murder rate. Ignoring the reality on the ground, ignoring the slow progress police and community advocates have made, allows him to persist with his “American carnage” motif and at the same time buttresses the racist messages about “inner cities” that still emanate from the White House. It allows him to yearn for the good old days of stop-and-frisk policing, which we now know, in both Chicago and New York, was not connected to murder rates.

The hostility toward the Chicago and Illinois consent decree also tracks the attorney general’s hostility toward civil rights and police reform. Remember that Sessions said, infamously, he didn’t even bother to read the Obama Justice Department’s report on civil rights abuses by the Chicago police. (The executive summary is all of 16 pages.) He didn’t read it because he didn’t care what was in it. Sessions was going to be against any reforms the report suggested. (In fact, his department took no action on “an agreement in principle” reached between Obama’s Justice Department and the city, which eventually prompted the state to sue and reach the consent decree Sessions now wants to sabotage.) 

We will never know what Chicago’s violent crime rate would look like today if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election and encouraged federal policing reforms to move forward in Chicago. But the Trump administration is forcing the rest of us to make a choice about where we go from here. Do we trust state and local officials to continue to reform policing in the city as the murder rate falls? Or do we trust Trump and Sessions, who want to encourage the police to return to harsh, and unconstitutional, policing practices? To ask that question is to answer it.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Image: Scott Olson/Getty)