In a public safety policy speech last week, Donald Trump correctly identified the growing crime problem in American cities. Although the rise in crime is not at the unprecedented levels Trump described, it nevertheless requires serious and responsible policy responses from all levels of government. Unfortunately, the former president was more interested in tough-guy posturing than he was in offering solutions to the complicated problems of urban crime. Most of his ideas ranged from simply unconstitutional to absurdly authoritarian.
Although there is much in the speech to criticize, are two specific ideas that not only wouldn’t make Americans safer but would undermine longstanding legal protections of our liberties. Successful crime policy requires cooperation and coordination between communities and local law enforcement, not sweeping and unconstitutional exercises of federal power that are unlikely to work in any case.
Federalizing the National Guard to fight violent crime
As I’ve written elsewhere, almost all crime politics is local. Different cities, states, and even neighborhoods have different needs—and thus require different remedies—to maximize public safety and security. Community members and local institutions are in the best positions to address crime problems because they have the most familiarity with what ails their neighborhoods. Indeed, Trump was not entirely off-base when he said, “Our great police know what to do. We have to allow them to do it.”
In spite of this, Trump also said, “The next president needs to send the National Guard to the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago until safety can be successfully restored.” Such an act would supersede the police department and replace them with people who know neither the neighborhoods nor the people in them. Rather than responding to a riot or natural disaster, Trump suggests an open-ended occupation of an American city on dubious-at-best constitutional authority. Although Trump says it could be done “very, very quickly,” whatever problems a temporary National Guard deployment could solve simply by their presence in the short term would resume the moment they were withdrawn.
But the bigger problem with this idea is that general crime fighting and similar local issues are constitutionally left to the states and outside of the regular scope of federal, let alone presidential, authority. Federalism—local control of local issues—is a foundational principle of our structure of governance. When the national government rightfully interfered with this principle, it was when the states and localities were actively imposing laws that contravened the rights of their citizens. The Guard should not be mobilized to initiate political stunts with low chances of success.
The National Guard is not a police force and moving soldiers across the country is not a substitute for sound public policy.
Punishment for punishment’s sake is not justice
Despite lamenting that “our most basic rights and liberties are totally under siege,” Trump cited the policies of authoritarian regimes like China and draconian anti-drug regimes like Singapore as models for American criminal adjudication:
"And I’ll tell you just from dealing with the heads of other countries, I said to President Xi of China, “Do you have a drug problem? No, no, no. Why do we ask such a question? No.” He almost didn’t know what I was talking about, “No, no.” I said, “Why do you think?” Well, if somebody is selling drugs, they get the quick trial, quick trial. Never forget. What is [a] quick trial? Meaning it goes fast and they get the death penalty….You know what a quick trial is, right? Two hours."
This is a vision of “justice” is both preposterous and horrifying. For all its many inexcusable flaws, the American capital system is not a sham trial that could be distilled into an afternoon. What Trump is pushing, even if unseriously, is contempt for due process—the protection of “our basic rights and liberties”—and the fundamental principles of justice. Such raw, clumsy, and unrepentant exercise of government power is anathema to the American ideal of ordered liberty.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time he expressed something so abjectly cruel and illegal in a crime policy speech.
Five years ago, almost to the day, then-President Trump spoke to a collection of police officers on Long Island, New York. In that speech, Trump explained that he didn’t want officers to protect arrestee’s heads when putting them in police cars, telling them specifically that “You can take the hand away,” which drew the officers’ loud approval. As I wrote at the time:
The president’s comments are disgraceful and anathema to responsible policing and the rule of law. Causing intentional injury to a handcuffed suspect is not only against police procedure, but is a federal crime for which police officers have been sent to prison. What’s worse, the reaction of the crowd of officers should strike fear into the heart of every parent on Long Island, particularly those of Black and Hispanic young men who fit the stereotypical description of the gang members President Trump described.
Recall that in the years that followed, particularly in response to protests of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, police officers across the country used shocking amounts of unnecessary and unprovoked violence against nonviolent protestors and journalists, even when they knew they were being recorded. Police should quell dangerous and destructive rioting, but there were too many instances of brazen lawlessness by police officers. Such instances should be condemned—not encouraged—by politicians, particularly if they claim to support the “rule of law.”
A real path forward
Crime is complicated and reducing victimization requires a multi-faceted effort from community leaders, law enforcement, and local institutions. Simply talking “tough and nasty and mean” might be good politics, but it’s miserable policy for the people most at risk for victimization. Programming and other assistance for at-risk youth and those returning to society from incarceration can improve outcomes in both short and longer terms. The deemphasis on the “tough-on-crime” posturing Trump has long championed is a smarter path forward than treating every social ill with cops and jail cells.
But law enforcement can play a role in reducing victimization, particularly in the short term. Crime is not only local, but high numbers of incidents tend to be concentrated in small sections of neighborhoods or even within city blocks in the poorest sections of a city. Rigorous, evidence-based studies show that targeted, visible police presence in these “hot spots” can deter new incidents without spilling over into other areas of the community. This should not mean that cops congregate in those places and harass every young person they come across—the natural outcome of tasking officers to “do something” about crime spikes—but smarter, community-oriented policing like this can make a difference.
The federal government's role in reducing crime is limited by the basic structures of American governance. Even if it had the authority to intervene in local matters, the feds don't have nearly enough personnel, money, or institutional structures to meaningfully reduce crime victimization, before one even considers the necessity of local knowledge. And honestly, that's a good thing. But such "tough, nasty, and mean" political bluster is bad for the country, bad for cops trying to do the right thing, and bad for the communities that need help the most.