A months-long effort by the Justice Department to surge resources to cities hit by rising crime rates collided this week with President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
The deployment of teams of federal officers, a routine strategy for investigators from the Justice Department’s law enforcement agencies, is now taking place under a political cloud, as the President seeks to highlight his law and order message, which has been underscored by violent clashes in recent weeks between rioters and federal officers in Portland, Oregon.
Trump and Attorney General William Barr announced the initiative from the White House on Wednesday. Operation Legend, which the Justice Department launched earlier this month in cooperation with local authorities in Kansas City, will now be expanded to Chicago and to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the number of homicides has shot up this year.
The move is similar to anti-crime programs done under previous administrations, which usually don’t generate much controversy.
Hundreds of agents and investigators from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration will be sent to Chicago under the new operation, which will also bring in hundreds more from regional outposts of the US Marshals Service and a division of the Department of Homeland Security, Barr said. Two dozen Justice Department agents will go to Albuquerque.
But the President’s attacks on Democratic-run cities over their handling of anti-racism protests in recent weeks has overshadowed the new initiative, which is now generating strong pushback from some mayors and officials, who’ve expressed shock at the federal tactics in Portland and say they want the feds to stay away.
That’s given rise to concerns among law enforcement officers and agents that their work is being politicized and could undercut their mission to reduce crime in cities that need the help.
“What we’re doing is not Portland,” said one federal law enforcement official involved in the planning of the anti-crime initiative, expressing frustration that it has been entangled with the political infighting and confused with the events in Portland. “We are sending investigators. They’re not there to deal with protesters or guard buildings.”
The Trump administration has come under scrutiny for a separate detachment of federal officials to the Oregon city in recent weeks, as rioters there have staged nightly attacks that grew out of peaceful anti-racism protests against a complex of federal buildings and the officers inside them.
One hundred and fourteen officers, mainly from the Department of Homeland Security, now guard the buildings each night under a mission of federal property protection and have cracked down on the rioters, arresting 43 since the start of the month, including one man who’s accused of striking an officer with a sledgehammer and others who shined high-intensity lasers in officers’ eyes, leaving some with potential permanent vision damage.
Still, videos of the federal officers using excessive force in some cases, and bringing another man into an unmarked police van for questioning in another instance, have gone viral online and prompted outrage from critics of the administration.
The heavy-handed federal response in Portland, and earlier in Washington, near the White House, has drawn criticism even inside the administration. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has raised concerns to officials in the administration over the military-style camouflage garb worn by some police amid the recent protests because it could be confused with the US military’s war zone uniforms.
As the President and his aides began hinting vaguely in recent days about a looming plan to expand the federal presence in cities, some local leaders foresaw an effort to stifle the protest movement that raged across the country after George Floyd’s killing but has quieted in most cities in recent weeks.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller worried the officers sent to his city will be a “bait and switch … we hear one thing and then two weeks later, like in Portland, all of a sudden it is secret police trying to round up protesters.
During an interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Wednesday night, Keller said there’s a “disconnect” between Trump and Barr.
“If we can get a situation where we’re assured that our values in our city are maintained and the operation … actually is what the AG says, then of course we can work together on it. We do that on a daily basis,” Keller said. “It’s just usually not involving the President of the United States.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters this week that after watching the events unfold in Portland, he would go to court to prevent federal officers from being sent to his city, which is among several that have seen a sharp increase in shootings and other violent crime.
In Chicago, which has suffered from spasms of violent crime, including a mass shooting at a funeral home on Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot similarly denounced any federal response that looked like the law enforcement presence in Portland, though she welcomed the help of federal investigators who could help rid the city’s streets of illegal guns.
At the White House on Wednesday, Trump justified the expansion of Operation Legend as a move to stamp out rising crime rates, though he cast it in sharply partisan terms, blaming “extreme” politicians and the movement to defund police departments for a “shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.”
Barr drew on political contrasts, citing rising crime under the Obama administration and what he said were more successful efforts in the current administration until the outbreak of Covid-19.
US cities historically see crime increases during the summer, law enforcement officials say. This year’s uptick in violent crime predates the summer, however, prompting federal agencies to begin making plans months ago to tackle it.
Federal programs to surge resources to fight urban crime have been going on for decades. In the 1930s, the US government dispatched legendary crime-fighter Eliot Ness and a team of so-called Untouchables to battle rampant crime in Chicago led by gangs fighting over the illegal alcohol-trafficking trade during Prohibition.
In December, the Justice Department announced a similar surge into seven cities across the country that were seeing crime waves. That operation, named Relentless Pursuit, was aborted earlier this year because of the pandemic.
Dan Kumar, a former ATF official who participated in previous surges, says the work takes months of planning alongside local and state prosecutors and police.
“These surges, or enhanced enforcement initiatives, are most successful when you have coordination among the state, local and federal agencies,” Kumar said in an interview.
In one such federal initiative, he said, ATF agents worked with officers from other agencies and with prosecutors embedded with their group to quickly issue subpoenas and target criminals. He says that months before the agents are deployed, investigators spend time developing intelligence and building the cases they plan to pursue, working alongside local prosecutors and police officers.
Wednesday, Barr sought to draw that distinction between the expanded operation and the ongoing clash in Portland.
“This is different than the operations and tactical teams we use to defend against riots and mob violence,” Barr said. “We will continue to confront mob violence, but the operations we are discussing today are very different – they are classic crime fighting.”