The best way Donald Trump can help reduce violence in Chicago is through a court-mandated reform of the Chicago police department, according to the city’s former top federal prosecutor.
The former US attorney, Zachary Fardon, included this recommendation in a five-page public letter Monday after he was abruptly dismissed by Trump’s justice department, along with the dozens of other US attorneys appointed by former president Barack Obama.
On Friday, the Department of Justice abruptly demanded the resignations of the remaining US attorneys appointed by the Obama administration. Preet Bharara, the crusading US attorney for the southern district of New York, refused to resign and tweeted that he was fired.
Fardon, the US attorney in Chicago, resigned more quietly, but on his way out, he gave local reporters a memo analyzing the causes of Chicago’s murder spike and a list of ways to address it – a summary that he produced “unshackled by the diplomatic constraints of being the US attorney” and that he hoped would “speak the truth”, he wrote.
Fardon’s letter crossed typical partisan boundaries and offered a scathing indictment of the culture of Chicago’s police department, the intransigence of city government, and the failure of federal law enforcement agencies to work in a coordinated way to address violence.
Fardon also issued a stern warning to Trump without mentioning him by name: sending in the national guard to deal with Chicago’s gun violence crisis would tell city residents: “This is war, and you are the enemy.”
“This is not war,” Fardon wrote. “If we resort to wrongheaded measures, we might set ourselves back years, even decades in the long-term fight.”
Chicago’s murders spiked nearly 60% in 2016, leaving more than 760 people dead, the highest number the city has seen in 20 years. Non-fatal shootings also increased: the city saw more than 4,331 shooting victims last year, according to police department figures.
Trump has seized on the crisis and issued a series of tweeted warnings that if city officials cannot “fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on” then he will “send in the Feds”, calling the gun violence “totally out of control”.
How Trump might intervene in Chicago is still far from clear. His promise in January to “send in the Feds” appeared to have been prompted by a Fox News segment on Chicago, in which host Bill O’Reilly castigated local officials and asked, “Can President Trump override local Illinois and Chicago authorities, and stop the murder?”
During his campaign for president, Trump said a Chicago police officer had told him that violence in Chicago could be stopped “in one week” if officers were allowed to be “very much tougher than they are right now”.
Fardon had a different analysis. He argued that Chicago’s city government cannot be trusted to reform the police department on its own.
Obama’s justice department concluded in January that Chicago’s police department uses excessive force in violation of the constitution and fails to appropriately train, supervise and hold officers accountable – a failure that impacts black and Latino residents the most.
Whether Trump’s justice department will follow up on this investigation’s findings is unclear. Attorney general Jeff Sessions suggested in his first speech that his department might “pull back” on monitoring police departments.
“If you leave correcting those deficiencies to the vagaries of city politics, then you likely lose the long-term fight. This city’s history is replete with examples of saying the right thing, in some cases starting the right thing, but then losing focus,” Fardon wrote.
“We didn’t say cops are bad. We said CPD has systemic problems that prevent it from supporting good officers, or checking bad officers.”
Fardon also argued that gun violence in Chicago spiked last year because “the rule of law” and law enforcement as a whole “had been delegitimized” after the release of a video showing a police officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The officer was later charged with murder. The video’s release led to the firing of the police superintendent, the ouster of state’s attorney and sustained public protest.
Dean C Angelo, the head of Chicago’s police union, said that he thought Fardon’s advice was “well thought-out”, though he disagreed with Fardon’s calling officers “scared” in the wake of the sustained protests and firings over the Laquan McDonald video.
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized Fardon for blaming part of the increase in violence on a decrease in street stops by police officers, calling him “wrong on the details and the big picture”, and saying that he “ignores the real impact and harm of these stops”.
Fardon praised front line workers, social services, police officers and prosecutors, but described them as undermined by the failed systems they worked in – and grappling at times with “frustration and despair”.
Chicago’s violence was fundamentally rooted in the long-term neglect of neighborhoods on the city’s south and west sides, a neglect that can only be understood through “ugly truths about power, politics, race and racism”, Fardon wrote, and that had resulted in “poverty and inadequate schools, businesses, jobs and infrastructure” that allowed gangs and violence to flourish.
Jim Bueerman, the president of the Police Foundation, a non-profit that conducts research on effective policing, said Fardon’s advice should be taken seriously, but that his memo should not be considered a full blueprint for addressing violence, since it did not delve deeply enough into how to fix the root causes of violence.