Early in his presidency, President Donald Trump promised to “send in the Feds” to address what he described as “carnage” based on his depiction of violent crime issues in cities like Chicago.1 One of the president’s first actions was to sign an executive order establishing a federal task force, comprised only of federal employees, to explore how the federal government should address crime in local U.S. jurisdictions.2 This task force soon will provide recommendations on what policy changes the U.S. Department of Justice should implement, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions already has instituted a shift toward a public safety strategy heavily reliant on more arrests and incarceration.3
This approach, however, is dangerous and based on false premises: There is no nationwide American carnage, and the federal government is not equipped to take the lead on public safety efforts in cities where violent crime rates have increased.
The situation in cities like Chicago certainly needs significant attention and support. The number of homicides committed in Chicago in 2016 was 57 percent greater than the year before.4 However, it is crucial to be accurate in describing crime and violence so that the strategies deployed are targeted to address the actual need. For example, several recent studies have indicated that the increase in homicides over the past two years have been driven overwhelmingly by a select number of cities, and that violent crime rates in other large metropolitan areas, such as New York City, have decreased or held steady.5
It is equally important to consider carefully the role of the federal government in addressing crime, especially considering the damage done the last time the federal government took the lead on public safety efforts. Known as the War on Drugs, that federally led effort traces its roots back to the late 1960s and accelerated through the next three decades, dramatically increased federal prison sentences for drug offenders and led to the mass incarceration of a generation—particularly young African American men—devastating their families and whole communities. These effects continue to this day.6
The failure of these policies does not mean that the federal government has no role in public safety, however. While public safety is generally a local issue, Washington has an important and distinctive role in both supporting and checking local efforts. This report examines three effective and appropriate ways the federal government can utilize its resources to help local communities address and prevent violent crime:
Fund comprehensive crime prevention
Provide robust oversight of the gun industry to reduce illegal gun trafficking
Build trust between police and communities through accountability
These actions make the best use of the unique assets that the federal government can offer, while allowing local law enforcement to lead crime reduction and prevention efforts. Instead of declaring a federal takeover of violent crime reduction efforts that could perpetuate the era of mass incarceration, this report argues for proven strategies that this Administration has discounted. It also advocates careful consideration regarding the manner and degree to which the federal government provides assistance to local jurisdictions.