President Trump is deploying 100 federal agents to Chicago to help combat rising rates of some crimes – a move that marks an expansion of the White House’s intervention into local law enforcement as Trump continues to position himself as the “law and order” president.
The "surge" of agents announced on Wednesday to Chicago and other American cities is part of Operation Legend – named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot while sleeping in a Kansas City apartment late last month – and comes as federal law enforcement officers have already descended on Portland, Ore. and Kansas City, Mo.
“The effort to shut down police in their own communities has led to a shocking explosion of shootings, killing, violence, murders,” Trump said during a speech in the White House’s East Room. “This rampage of violence shocks the conscience of our nation and we will not stand by and watch it happen.”
While sending federal agents to aid local law enforcement is not unprecedented – Attorney General Bill Barr announced a similar surge effort in December for seven cities that had seen spiking violence – the type of federal agent being sent, and some of their tactics, have raised concerns among state and local lawmakers.
Usually, the Justice Department sends agents under its own umbrella, like agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Drug Enforcement Administration. But this surge effort will include Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) officers, who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations.
A number of lawmakers from New York to Portland have spoken out against the Trump administration sending the agents to their cities, especially following reports that unidentified federal agents detained protesters in Portland and took them away in unmarked vehicles. Portland has been hit with near-daily demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism since the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
Local authorities also have complained the surges have only exacerbated tensions, and criminal justice experts say the efforts defy explanation because of the unprecedented moment America is living through — with a pandemic, historic unemployment and a mass reckoning over racism and how people of color are treated by police.
“The president is attacking progressive cities with troops who are unwelcome and unskilled,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a letter signed by 16 mayors calling on Trump to reverse his orders. “Militarized agents are terrorizing the American people. We must stand together for peace and reform, and against these un-American tactics.”
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot added: “We welcome partnership, not dictatorship, and will never tolerate the kind of unconstitutional deployment and state-sanctioned lawlessness we saw in Portland.”
Chicago, which is currently experiencing a spat of deadly gun violence, has been a particular target of Trump’s criticism. A shooting at a funeral home earlier this week left 14 people injured, and followed a weekend that saw 10 people killed and 60 people injured due to gun violence.
“At least 414 people have been murdered in the city this year,” Trump said. “These are numbers that are not even to be believed.”
The decision to dispatch federal agents to American cities is playing out at a hyper-politicized moment when Trump is trying to show he is a “law-and-order” president and painting Democratic-led cities as out of control. With less than four months to go before Election Day, Trump has been serving up dire warnings that the violence would worsen if his Democratic rival Joe Biden is elected in November, as he tried to win over voters who could be swayed by that message.
Trump has worked to tie Biden to some of the progressive Democratic lawmakers have echoed calls of protestors to “defund the police. The president said that Democratic leaders have “embraced the ideology of the radical left to defund the police.”
However, Biden has not called on police to be either defunded or abolished, but has argued for better training and a redistribution of funding to other social programs.
The use of federal agents against the will of local officials also has set up the potential for a constitutional crisis, according to legal experts.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said federal agents were repressing the U.S. right to protest and he would not welcome federal agents there.
“I still believe in the rule of law in this country, and we would go to court immediately. I believe what the president is doing is unconstitutional,” he said on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” show on Wednesday.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.