It is hard to know where to begin to list the harm caused by the unwanted insertion of federal law enforcement into the already volatile situation in Portland. The short-term damage is apparent: peaceful demonstrators — although, admittedly, not all are peaceful — stung by chemical sprays or shot with so-called less-lethal weapons that can cause serious injury or even death, law enforcement appearing like military troops but acting like Storm Troopers; expansion of the right to protect federal property to the streets far beyond the claimed mission; the use of federal muscle for explicitly political purposes; the self-created mirage of chaos on our urban streets — and the fear that this is a dry run for President Trump to order similar actions either just before the election or even afterward, should he lose.
But the longer-term damage is just as serious. To appreciate the impact, we need to put the role of federal law enforcement into historical perspective. Since America’s founding, we have been wary of a national police force, relying almost exclusively on local and state law enforcement. That began to change, at least to some extent, as crime became more national and even international. The advent of prohibition, organized crime, the war on drugs, and terrorism have all led to a dramatic increase in federal law enforcement resources, jurisdiction, and presence. Yet much of that effort remains focused on larger, federal issues. Local officials are wary of federal law enforcement patrolling their streets, even where careful and selective use of federal resources could help local efforts.
In the early 1990s, Boston experienced a significant uptick in violent gang activity. When I became US attorney, I asked whether and how the hefty resources of federal law enforcement might be used to target the problem. There was initial resistance. This was particularly true in Massachusetts, where some local and state police harbored deep suspicions of the FBI, fueled by the legacy of Whitey Bulger.Using Bulger as an informant, while at the same time protecting him from state prosecution, left scars of distrust. But, by working carefully and respectfully with local prosecutors, law enforcement, and the community, we were able to carve out a necessary and supportive role.
Violent gang members and repeat violent offenders were federally prosecuted, leading to the dismantling of some gangs and a sharp reduction in homicides. At the same time, we worked with local officials, cops, and community leaders to support alternatives to gang activity, including jobs and social services. These efforts became part of what some called the Boston Miracle.
But these federal efforts were not undertaken in a vacuum or imposed on local law enforcement and the community. It was part of a coordinated and careful strategy. These cooperative federal, state, and local relationships have, to various degrees, continued, and they make this a safer community. Which leads me back to the events in Portland.
When Trump and Attorney General William Barr threaten to send in federal law enforcement to various cities, whether local officials want it or not, it undermines the rationale and effectiveness of federal initiatives. Even legitimate federal efforts to assist local law enforcement may be not only unwanted but also resisted. We have already seen this to someextent with the actions of ICE in certain communities. But it promises to get much worse. Local political leaders and law enforcement will be reluctant to welcome the feds when they have been told that federal law enforcement operates within its own orbit, without regard for local input, guidance, or coordination. In the long run, that will make everyone less safe.
Donald K. Stern served as US attorney in Massachusetts from 1993 to 2001. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Criminal Justice.