Conservatives keep urging Trump to send troops into Chicago. Experts say it’s a bad idea.
In the summer of 2017, President Donald Trump made good on previous threats to send more federal agents into Chicago to help local law enforcement officials stem the city’s homicide rate.
On June 30, the Trump administration deployed 20 additional agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to the Windy City to join the newly formed Crime Gun Strike Force, a joint endeavor between feds already stationed there and local police designed to stop the city’s import of illegal guns.
It was the kind of federal action Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel had said he’d welcome in January 2017.
“If it comes to safety and security when dealing with gangs and guns ... you want the federal resources that are set up to deal with that,” he said at a press conference. “That is the ATF, alcohol, tobacco and firearms. That is DEA.”
Since then, the number of homicides and shootings in the Windy City have dropped compared to this time in 2017. As of Saturday, 213 people have been killed in Chicago in 2018, 65 fewer than by that date in 2017, according to the Chicago Tribune. The 173 shootings the city weathered in just the month of April in 2018 were 29% fewer than the 245 shootings it endured 12 months prior, according to CNN. Chicago’s homicide rate also plummeted 21% in April compared to April 2017.
“The community has now re-engaged with the police department and are helping us to reduce the violence,” police superintendent Eddie Johnson told a local ABC affiliate in April.
It’s unclear if this drop in gun violence can be attributed to Trump’s ATF agents. But some conservative pundits want the president to escalate matters regardless. DePaul University philosophy professor Jason D. Hill — who is black — published an open letter at the Hill on May 24 urging Trump to send the U.S. military into Chicago to combat the city’s “feral thugs and gangbangers.”
“Unleash those troops not to instill fear, but as the insignia of urban civility and order,” Hill wrote. “Do it not just to save black and Hispanic lives. Do it because it is the moral thing to do. All lives matter. You are in a position to save them.”
Hill was joined later by former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who spoke about Chicago’s gun violence on his website May 10 and May 30.
“I’ve called for the National Guard to be put in there for years,” O’Reilly told Hill on a May 30 livestream of his personal site’s show. “You can’t have poor Americans in danger every day of their lives, children, elderly people trying to walk to the grocery store and the state and the city of Chicago, Illinois, do nothing.”
Thirty-eight people were shot, nine fatally, over the weekend in Chicago, where summer temperatures often coincide with more gun violence in the city’s low-income, predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. Roughly 2.7 million people live in the city, which in practice means homicide rates per capita were lower there in 2017 than in several smaller cities, including St. Louis, Baltimore and six others, according to the Trace.
Regardless, conservatives like O’Reilly and Candace Owens continue to single out Chicago as an indicator of the folly of liberal political orthodoxy — pointing to the perceived failures of both stricter gun control laws and police-reform proposals raised by supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also been a means for some to perpetuate racist stereotypes that black and brown people are pathologically prone to violence and criminality.
“I’ll submit to you that these people don’t want to work,” O’Reilly told Chicago talk radio host Matt McGill on the May 10 edition of his show. “It’s easier to sell drugs. It’s easier to run around with your peeps and be violent. That’s what they’re going to do whether you give them a job or not ... That’s the truth.”
But even if one believes that conservative virtue signaling about Chicago is sincere, many legal, governmental and military experts say sending troops into the city is the wrong approach for constitutional, moral and practical reasons.
“I don’t think that’s the way to reduce gun violence,” Cook County Commissioner Richard R. Boykin said in a recent phone interview. “All that does is exacerbate the problem, creates more havoc, more trauma for the people who live in those communities.”
It was Boykin, the elected official who oversees county governmental activities in the Chicago region, who in December asked the United Nations for help stopping the city’s “genocide.” He said his appeal to the international governing body has since been misconstrued as asking for militarization, when what he really wanted was international study and administrative aid.
“What I asked them to do is send resources, folks in to see how we can protect the minority communities,” Boykin explained. “Sending in troops, I’m totally opposed to that.”
Chicago anti-gun violence advocate Mary Long, president and founder of the youth mentoring group Sacred Ground Ministries, says sending in troops would just be a political stunt. Long’s son, Eric Williams, was killed by gun violence in 2012.
“All that stuff is just for show,” Long said of conservatives who talk about sending troops into the city. “Why would we escalate a situation where we can’t even get control of law enforcement we got here? That’s not addressing the actual problem. That’s just putting a band aid on what the actual problem is.”
Chicago’s police department has been plagued by corruption and high-profile misconduct cases in recent years, most notably the October 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald.
Moreover, it’s questionable whether or not it would even be legal for Trump to send troops into Chicago unilaterally. Retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led U.S. troops on disaster relief missions in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in 2005, says it’s rare for presidents to authorize military operations on U.S. soil without the request and consent of a governor or other state and local authorities.
“[The] Posse Comitatus [Act of 1878] prevents the federal government from sending troops in there unless they’re asked for,” Honoré said in a phone interview. “Troops are sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. They’re not designed to do law enforcement.”
Honoré noted that prior to the Civil War, it was common for the U.S. Army to assist state and local government officials with policing duties, like catching fugitive slaves and guarding polling stations during elections. But during the Reconstruction era, starting in 1865, Southerners in the former Confederate states abhorred having soldiers sent by pro-Union Republican presidents — like former Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant — to patrol their communities and protect the rights of free blacks.
Tensions peaked in November of 1876 when Republican president Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote to Democratic challenger Samuel J. Tilden, but won the White House by one electoral vote in what Smithsonian described as the “ugliest, most contentious presidential election ever.”
According to Smithsonian, Hayes needed 20 electoral votes to secure his White House win, but the former confederate states of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina were ruled too close to call. During the electoral dispute, Republicans accused southern Dems of intimidating former black male slaves to keep them from voting. Southern Dems accused federal troops who manned polling stations of intimidating Tilden supporters while also criticizing laws forbidding Confederate veterans from casting ballots.
The former Confederate states only agreed to acknowledge Hayes’ win after a “behind-the-scenes deal” known as the Compromise of 1877 was commissioned. It established the removal of federal troops from Southern territories and a subsequent end to the Reconstruction era. One year later, a Congress controlled by Democrats doubled down on that compromise by passing the Posse Comitatus Act.
One rare exception to Posse Comitatus is the power granted to the president by the Insurrection Act of 1807, a law which gives the president power to legally send troops into a state without permission from the governor when laws aren’t being enforced, or a group of people’s civil rights are being denied, according to the New Yorker.
President Abraham Lincoln invoked the Insurrection Act in 1861 in response to armed rebellions by Southern states led by South Carolina, which responded to Lincoln’s White House win in November of 1860 by passing a resolution declaring its secession from the U.S. in December of the same year.
President Eisenhower famously invoked his insurrection powers in 1957 after Arkansas state and local authorities refused to enforce the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Topeka, Kansas, Board of Education ruling mandating integration of black students into white schools.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush used his insurrection authority to send troops to quell the Los Angeles riots that erupted after four Los Angeles Police Department officers were found not guilty in the beating of Rodney King, a black motorist. Trump could argue that Chicago’s gun violence meets the lawlessness threshold necessary to justify sending in troops without the city or state’s permission, in theory. But right now it’s not that severe, according to Honoré.
“I don’t think Chicago meets that criteria,” the general said.
In reality, it seems that sending troops into Chicago may be less about saving lives and more about politics for the president and his supporters.
Mobilizing the National Guard or the Army may seem drastic, but the president has been known to take drastic measures when they’re politically expedient. In January 2017, the sudden rollout of the administration’s Muslim travel ban led to dramatic scenes at airports across the U.S., where thousands of protesters gathered in terminal parking lots to demonstrate against Customs and Border Protection officials detaining people flying into the country from select majority-Muslim nations.
The Trump administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and the detention of undocumented immigrants and their children also caught legal and political observers by surprise.
“I have no ability to predict what Donald Trump is or is not going to do,” American Civil Liberties Union senior staff attorney Carl Takei said during a recent phone interview. “What I can say is sending troops into Chicago is a terrible and extreme idea that he should not do. I would be surprised if he followed through on this. On the another hand, I have been surprised by many of the things that he has done.”
Perhaps the broader question isn’t whether Trump can or will send troops into Chicago, but whether sending troops would result in a political win for the White House. Takei said the answer to that question is no.
“All of the problems with American policing would only be worsened by President Trump ordering a military occupation of an American city,” Takei said. “There are all kinds of practical problems that would result in this. What happens if a soldier shoots a civilian while occupying an American city?”
As far as strong-arm options go, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have suggested that when it comes to government accountability, American police could learn a lot from the U.S. military, which has stricter rules of engagement than civilian law enforcement even though police often use military weapons and tactics while doing their jobs.
“While police departments have armed officers with the trappings of a military force, they have neglected to impose military discipline,” MIT researchers Rachel Tecott and Sara Plana wrote for the Washington Post in 2016.
But when it comes to actually solving Chicago’s problems, Boykin said the answer won’t come from the military or police.
“All of that violence is driven by acts of desperation, poverty,” Boykin said. “We gotta figure out how do we get to the core of the issues. Let’s start with parenting, education, making sure people who want to work have a job. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s an American thing that we all gotta fix.”