Trump takes first tentative steps on public safety

President Trump says "criminal cartels" are "destroying the blood of our youth."

Taking his first tangible steps on public safety, President Donald J. Trump signed a series of executive orders Thursday intended to protect police officers and target international gangs at the center of the illegal drug trade.

Trump, who cast himself during the presidential campaign as a law-and-order candidate — and referred to violence in Baltimore on several occasions — said the orders were "designed to restore safety in America" and would send a message to the "gang members and drug dealers."

"A new era of justice begins," Trump said in the Oval Office, "and it begins right now."

Trump vowed during the campaign to reduce urban crime without articulating a plan to do so. He has continued to sound get-tough themes from the White House, recently warning Chicago officials that they needed to address crime there or he would "send in the feds."

Whatever criminal justice policies the Trump administration pursues could have a profound impact in Baltimore, which is experiencing another deadly year. Forty-two people were killed in the city during the first 39 days of the year — more than twice as many as during the same period in 2016.

Trump's orders Thursday were clearly preliminary, underscoring the limited ability of any president — and the federal government generally — to act in an area long considered the purview of local government. None of the orders will have an immediate impact, instead calling for studies, a task force and future, undefined policies.

But they nevertheless drew fire from critics. Some noted Trump's assertion earlier in the week that the nation's murder rate is "the highest it's been in 47 years" when, in fact, it is considerably lower than it was in the 1990s. Others observed that he was silent Thursday about police actions that have led to the deaths of minorities and sparked unrest in Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.

"President Trump intends to build task forces to investigate and stop national trends that don't exist," said Jeffery Robinson, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The president not only doesn't acknowledge these facts about our nation's safety, he persists in ignoring the all-too-real deaths of black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement."

A spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh did not respond to a request for comment. The Baltimore Police Department declined to comment.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions stood at Trump's side as he signed the orders. Sessions was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday and sworn into office on Thursday.

"We have a crime problem," Sessions said. "I wish the rise that we're seeing in crime in America today was some sort of aberration or blip. My best judgment ... is that this is a dangerous, permanent trend."

The first executive order — which Trump said would "break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth" — calls on the executive branch to "strengthen enforcement of federal law" to thwart international gangs and ensure that federal law enforcement gives a "high priority" to criminal organizations.

During the campaign, Trump pointed repeatedly to international influences to explain crime. He reiterated that assessment this week, telling a meeting of police chiefs and sheriffs that much of Chicago's crime problem is caused by gang members, "many of whom are not even legally in our country."

A second order signed Thursday creates a task force on crime reduction and criminal justice to be spun up by the attorney general that will "exchange information and ideas" and "develop strategies to reduce crime."

The group will be required to submit at least one report to the White House within the year.

The final order tasks the attorney general with developing a strategy to use existing federal laws to "prosecute individuals who commit or attempt to commit crimes of violence against ... law enforcement officers."

That document also calls for a review of grants to ensure federal money is used to protect federal, state and local police officers.

The order noted it will be the Trump administration's policy to pursue legislation in Congress to define new federal crimes, and increase penalties for existing crimes, to prevent violence against police.

Sixty-four police officers were killed by gunfire in 2016.

Chuck Canterbury, president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said Trump's orders are consistent with his campaign promises.

"The orders he signed today on officer safety, crime reduction and fighting transnational criminal organizations like the cartels is just further evidence that his word is good and that this president will deliver on his promises," Canterbury said in a statement.

While Trump's executive orders were broadly tentative, analysts said they also signal a rhetorical shift from the Obama administration that could lead to concrete changes in the future.

Fordham University law professor John Pfaff, who teaches criminal law, speculated that gauzy language in the orders calling for a review of federal funding could be aimed at gutting research on shootings by police, for instance. He said the less clear focus on police shootings and questions about community trust could be a precursor to scaling back the Justice Department's use of consent decrees to overhaul police departments.

The Obama Justice Department negotiated such a decree with Baltimore after investigators alleged a history of unconstitutional and discriminatory practices by city police.

"By emphasizing the risk to officers … it pushes the narrative away from the harms caused by poorly regulated departments," Pfaff said.

Pugh said this week that the city's crime-fighting strategy has not been sufficient to stem the killings in Baltimore, and her administration is searching for solutions.

More than 112 people have been shot in the city this year.

Baltimore Sun reporters Justin George and Justin Fenton contributed to this article.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

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