Philadelphia, like many American cities, suffers excessively from violent crime, rooted in the city’s deep poverty, limited economic opportunities, and easy access to firearms. The pandemic and accompanying economic fallout have worsened these underlying causes. Little can be done in the short term to address those factors, but a surge of law enforcement resources could provide some marginal help – if they were deployed in the right ways.
During my years as a federal prosecutor, I witnessed how skilled federal agents and prosecutors assisted local law enforcement in tackling local crime. The FBI and DEA worked successfully with the Philadelphia Police Department to investigate and prosecute sophisticated and violent drug organizations. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) worked with Philadelphia police to investigate the use and distribution of illegal guns. Many of the cases I prosecuted—including that of notorious North Philadelphia drug dealer Alexander Rivera—would not have been successes without the collaborative effort of FBI agents and Philadelphia police officers.
Federal law enforcement can be a boon for local law enforcement for several reasons. First, the federal investigative agencies have significant technological and analytical resources that allow for identifying and targeting the worst offenders and geographical hotspots. Second, federal agencies employ skilled agents who have the ability and time to undertake important longer-term investigations. And third, in appropriate circumstances, federal mandatory sentences can be used to keep the most violent criminals off the street and as leverage to encourage cooperation during prosecution.
During the Obama administration, local-federal cooperation helped drive Philadelphia murders to a low for recent decades. In 2013, homicides in Philadelphia fell to 246, compared to 391 in 2007. In recent years, homicides have spiked. There were 356 homicides in 2019, and to date there are more than 25% more homicides in 2020 than there were on the same date last year. A surge of federal law enforcement resources could help our suffering city.
The Trump administration ostensibly offered to do just that. Last month, it announced that it would send federal agents to cities around the country, including Philadelphia. But the President and the Department of Justice seem to be more intent on creating an election year political issue than truly working to help solve the problem of violent crime.
As they often do, the President’s tweets revealed his true intentions when he shared that he planned to send federal agents to “Democratic-led cities,” unnecessarily highlighting politics of the local mayors. Attorney General Bill Barr further highlighted the performative nature of this political stunt when he claimed that federal agents had arrested 200 people in two weeks in Kansas City, only to be corrected by the Kansas City mayor who confirmed only a single federal arrest.
While criticizing Democratic mayors like Jim Kenney may appeal to the President’s political base, politicizing violent crime will not help solve the problem and could make things worse by jeopardizing nonpartisan local-federal relationships that have long served to protect cities. The President is so unpopular and divisive in cities like ours that his threat to surge federal law enforcement resources will likely be viewed by elected leaders and residents alike with distrust and fear at a time when additional federal resources — deployed correctly — should in fact be welcomed.
The potential for distrust has been exacerbated by the federal show-of-force in Portland, which looks more like an attempt to instigate a conflict for political purposes than it does a legitimate law enforcement strategy.
Investigating, prosecuting, and deterring violent crime works best when all the relevant agencies are working together in the same direction. From a practical standpoint Trump’s threat to send federal forces to Philadelphia has likely served to chill local-federal cooperation and exacerbate the conflict between local and federal law enforcement.
If the Trump administration truly cared about a rise in violent crime in American cities it would quietly send additional, targeted resources and agents to these cities and then step out of the way to let these skilled women and men do what they do best: investigate.