WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump signed three executive actions Thursday that he said directed the Justice Department and Homeland Security to crack down on crime, even as critics contend his administration has exaggerated the nation's crime problems.
At the swearing-in ceremony of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump spoke of the "menace of rising crime and the threat of deadly terror" and said Sessions would be "a great protector of the people." Trump campaigned as a "law and order" candidate and routinely spoke about crime rates in America.
"Dangerous times require a determined attorney general, which is what Jeff is," Trump said in the Oval Office.
Sessions handed the orders to Trump, saying that they had been approved by the Justice Department.
The first order directs the Justice Department and Homeland Security to "undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people, many other people," Trump announced.
That action specifically seeks to strengthen enforcement against crimes including cybercrime and intellectual property theft, as well as human trafficking.
Another order will direct the Justice Department to form a task force on reducing violent crime in America, Trump said.
The third order states that the Trump administration will "pursue appropriate legislation" that will define new crimes, and increase penalties for existing crimes, to prevent violence against federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement officers.
"Very important, all very important," the president said as he signed the final order.
Trump said this is a message to the gang members and drug dealers: "A new era of justice begins and it begins right now."
Sessions, in his comments after taking the oath of office, said the country has a crime problem.
"I wish the rise we're seeing in crime in America today were some kind of aberration or blip," Sessions said. "This is a dangerous permanent trend that places the health and safety of the American people at risk."
Crime analysts generally disagree with that assessment. The violent crime rate increased slightly in 2016, but remains near the bottom of the nation's 30-year downward trend, according to a December analysis of crime data by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
"An increase in the murder rate is occurring in some cities even while other forms of crime remain relatively low," the Brennan Center analysis states. "Concerns about a national crime wave are still premature, but these trends suggest a need to understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities."
Trump in remarks Wednesday to police chiefs of major cities cited murder statistics to say that many communities in America are facing a public safety crisis. He noted that murders in large cities in 2015 experienced their largest single-year increase in nearly half a century, and in 2016 continued to climb by double digits.
"In many of our biggest cities, 2016 brought an increase in the number of homicides, rapes, assaults and shootings," Trump said. "In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone, and the rate so far this year has been even higher. What is going on in Chicago?"
Earlier Wednesday, Trump incorrectly told a law enforcement group that the nation's murder rate was the highest it had been in 45 years - but that rate has been dropping since the 1990s, according to FBI crime statistics. The rate did increase from 2014 to 2015, but still remains lower than 1995.