Trump says he wants to "send in the feds" in Chicago, but that's a historically bad idea


President Donald Trump's law-enforcement policies are taking shape in ways that, frankly, aren't too shocking to native Chicagoan and criminal justice professor Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve. 

Weeks after clinching an Electoral College victory in November, Trump used Twitter to hold up Chicago's epidemic of homicide and violent crime as emblematic of a "law and order" problem in communities of color nationwide, Van Cleve said.

"When he says things like 'the Chicago problem,' make no mistake, he's stoking racial fear," Van Cleve, assistant professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, told Mic in a phone interview. "This president has generalized all people of color as living in cities."

Now, Trump is ratcheting up his rhetoric on Chicago violence, tweeting Tuesday that the Windy City should expect federal intervention if its violence doesn't decrease. 

Although his tweet didn't specify what kind of intervention he would deploy, history tells us martial law — when used as a response to civil unrest or other violence in minority communities — leads to higher rates of death, incarceration and civil liberties violations. Furthermore, aggressive intervention does nothing to fix one underlying issue perpetuating violence in urban and suburban America: ineffective police forces that have lost the trust of the communities they serve.

"When you take the history of his rhetoric and his campaign promises, this martial law approach presents a different twist," said Van Cleve, who authored 2016's Crook County about Chicago's criminal justice system. "There is no violence-prevention expert in America that would agree that martial law works."

But perhaps Trump didn't ask those in the violence-prevention community. An hour or so before Trump tweeted his threat of federal intervention in Chicago, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly aired a segment citing the exact crime statistics the president later mentioned.

Tuesday night's O'Reilly Factor cited 42 homicides and 228 shootings in Chicago since Jan. 1, an increase of 24% and 5.5% over the same period in 2016, respectively. By the end of 2016, the city had seen 762 homicides and 4,331 shootings — higher than any year in the last two decades, according to a Chicago Tribune report. For context, Chicago, a city of more than 2.7 million residents, ranked 18th in the nation for homicide rates from 2010 to 2015; New Orleans, with 378,000 residents, ranked first.

On Jan. 2, Trump tweeted that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel should "ask for federal help" if he couldn't find a solution to Chicago's violence problem. On Jan. 13, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Chicago Police Department, where officials said they found rampant, racist abuse by officers.

"There is no violence-prevention expert in America that would agree that martial law works."

Chicagoans, many of whom have protested against the Chicago police's aggressive policing tactics and excessive use of force, are without "lawful, responsive and transparent" policing, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch said during a press conference announcing the findings of the Justice Department probe earlier in January. The city agreed to negotiate with DOJ officials over reforms in use-of-force policies, among other needed improvements.

While residents are dissatisfied with the quality of policing, they also want safe streets. Nationally, many police chiefs recognize that aggressive over-policing isn't what lowers violence rates — better community relationships do, according to David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Teresa Crawford/AP

"No thinking police leader wants to go backward; the field has fully taken on board that locking up and locking down minority neighborhoods is disastrous and that there is simply no alternative to building new relationships with angry communities," Kennedy, who has studied violence prevention in Chicago, wrote in a May op-ed for Crain's Chicago Business.

What does work is a mixture of effective policing and social programs that include community development, medical care and job training, Van Cleve said.

But Trump's proposal for Chicago, in particular, seems to put less emphasis on negotiating better policing and more focus on swift crackdowns in problem areas. 

"You've got to stop it," Trump said in a June 2015 interview with the Chicago Tribune. "You're not going to stop it by being nice. You're going to stop it by being one tough son of a bitch."

If that means declaring martial law — typically a suspension of local laws by federal authorities during a crisis or unrest — it's unlikely to bode well for Chicagoans.


In 1965, when thousands of California Army National Guard troops were called in to restore order in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles — during six days of rioting sparked by protests over police brutality — 35 people were killed, hundreds were injured and thousands were arrested.

Nearly 50 years later, following the 2014 death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the Missouri National Guard was called in to quell unrest in the St. Louis suburb. They deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades against protesters, made dozens of arrests and imposed a curfew.

In Watts and Ferguson, the deployment of the National Guard eventually brought about order but left communities feeling occupied rather than protected. On the newly revamped White House website, Trump has promised Americans "community engagement" with law enforcement and "more effective policing." But those who fail to protest peacefully in pursuit of those things won't be tolerated.

"Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter or the violent disrupter," reads the page titled "Standing Up for Our Law Enforcement Community" on the website. "Our job is to make life more comfortable for parents who want their kids to be able to walk the streets safely."

But "the feds," as Trump calls them, won't make streets safer in Chicago or anywhere else, Van Cleve said. 

"These communities don't see police as a solution to violence, but as another source of violence," she said. "Martial law would just fan the flames, if you will."