In no small part because of Trump’s politically charged rhetoric, local activists and officials have come to view with suspicion the more than 200 agents sent to Missouri from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service and other federal agencies. Some officials said they were not consulted and do not know the precise plans. After the Trump administration announced Wednesday it would increase the federal presence in Chicago and Albuquerque, local officials there greeted the news icily.
Trump, they feared, was either trying to score political points by casting himself as the law-and-order candidate, or putting federal agents on the ground to forcefully crack down on demonstrators, as happened in Portland. And they wondered how useful the federal presence might be. In Kansas City, the initiative has so far produced public charges against one person, even though Attorney General William P. Barr claimed inaccurately on Wednesday, “The FBI went in very strong into Kansas City, and within two weeks, we’ve had 200 arrests.”
“We’re just afraid if we have a big protest they’re going to send in the feds since people have already spotted them around town,” said Debbie Hendrix, 48, a local activist. “They’re supposed to be worrying about the high crime rate. Hey, the crime rate is still high even though y’all are here.”
Top law enforcement officials, including Barr and acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf, have sought to draw a distinction between the initiative in Kansas City, Chicago and Albuquerque — dubbed “Operation Legend” — and the federal response to unrest in Portland.
The Justice Department inspector general’s office on Thursday announced that it would investigate use-of-force allegations involving Justice Department personnel in Portland, and would coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office, which is also investigating. The Justice Department inspector general’s office also announced it would review the separate controversial use of Justice Department personnel to respond to unrest in D.C. over the past two months.
Federal officials have said in court filings that the Portland response, called “Operation Diligent Valor,” involves 114 officers from components of DHS and the U.S. Marshals Service, and is meant to protect federal facilities.
The Trump administration is sending a team of Customs and Border Protection tactical officers to Seattle in anticipation of potential clashes with protesters in the city, two Homeland Security officials with knowledge of the plans said Thursday.
The officers are members of CBP’s Office of Field Operations Special Response Teams, which are trained in riot control response and typically deploy when protesters gather at international border crossings. They, like other officials interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the deployment.
The officials said they did not have information about how many officers were being sent to the city, but the deployment is not in response to new demonstrations in Seattle, according to an official from the Federal Protective Service, which is tasked with guarding federal buildings and requested the assistance.
“I think this is just proactive, to make sure we have capability available,” said the FPS official. “The [CBP] teams will be in a standby posture in case we need them.”
Operation Legend involves more than 200 agents from Justice Department components in Kansas City, a similar number in Chicago, and 35 in Albuquerque, and it is focused on violent crime, Barr has said. It is named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was shot and killed in Kansas City in late June.
Barr said the officers deployed would be added to existing federal task forces, and more cities could see deployments in the coming weeks. The White House revealed on its website that those cities include Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee.
“In a sense, this isn’t any different than what we already were doing on a daily basis, because we already have several hundred federal agents who are stationed permanently in Kansas City,” one U.S. official said Thursday.
Some local leaders, though, are worried the administration is not being fully transparent about its intent.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton D. Lucas (D) was among six big-city mayors — including those in Portland, Atlanta, D.C., Seattle and Chicago — who signed a letter to Barr and Wolf this week expressing “deep concern” about the use of federal forces and urging them to withdraw and “agree to no further unilateral deployment in our cities.”
On Wednesday, Lucas clarified his stance on Operation Legend, saying that he welcomed the additional federal help if the feds stick to the mission at hand — solving violent crime.
“We all want our city to be safe,” he said in a statement. “Operation Legend should focus on tackling violent crime in our city with federal investigators providing support to our police department in unsolved homicide and non-fatal shooting investigations.” The city has seen 111 homicides so far this year.
“Right now, if this is about solving murders in our community, we welcome that support,” Lucas said in an interview Thursday. “But if it’s about supplanting our police department or anything remotely related to policing protest activity then I have concerns.”
Lucas also said he was worried that the deployment was being used by the Trump administration “to distinguish viewpoints on the American city from Vice President [Joe] Biden, and that’s not helpful for us.”
He said he had little information about how many federal officers had been deployed in the city, which agencies they were from and what cases they would be working on.
“You know, I don’t have enough of those answers and that’s a concern,” Lucas said. “We’re still learning about the contours of the program and that’s less than ideal.”
Trump took direct aim this week at leaders of American cities — particularly those who support redirecting funding from police, whom he blamed for recent upticks in violent crime — and seemed to make a plea to voters to oust them. While it is true violent crime has spiked in some places coinciding with protests against racism and police brutality, experts caution the data is too preliminary to draw concrete conclusions about cause.
“Americans must hold their city leaders accountable,” Trump said in a speech expanding Operation Legend that was watched by senior administration officials and victims of crime. “They must insist that community officials fully support, fully back, and fully fund their local police departments. There is simply no substitute for a police department that has the strong backing of city leaders.”
Chicago’s mayor called the event a “political stunt,” and observers noted the optics — the speech laced with political attacks occurred at the White House — was not typical for a Justice Department reveal of law enforcement initiatives.
“DOJ law enforcement actions have always been announced at DOJ, not the White House, and for good reason — law enforcement’s legitimacy hinges on it being kept separate from partisan politics,” said Matt Axelrod, a former federal prosecutor who worked as a senior Justice Department official in the Obama administration.
A U.S. official said agents only began arriving in Kansas City for Operation Legend this week, though a few had come earlier. The official said local law enforcement and some community leaders had been consulted in advance.
So far, authorities have only announced one arrest connected to the operation. Monty W. Ray, 20, was charged this week with being an unlawful drug user in possession of firearms, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a news release. According to the release, Ray — who already was wanted for assaulting a law enforcement officer and fleeing — was spotted driving a stolen vehicle on July 17. Officers tried to take him into custody, but he fled, according to the release, though they were later able to catch him and found two stolen guns in his car.
Justice Department officials said the figure Barr was referring to were arrests connected to a different anti-crime initiative. That effort, named “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” was launched in December in seven cities, including Kansas City. The U.S. official said many of the 200 arrests were instances of U.S. marshals helping round up fugitives wanted on local arrest warrants.
Justice Horn, 22, a community organizer in Kansas City and the co-chair of a group called Black Students for Biden, said that while he understood Taliferro’s family seeking justice for their son, it was “inappropriate for state government and the Trump administration to make this a political stunt, to look strong to the base on law and order.”
“If they really cared about solving crime they would have consulted the community and they did nothing,” Horn said. “They should have brought people together and been transparent about it.”
Lucas, the Kansas City mayor, said he believed FBI, ATF and DEA agents could make a major impact on unsolved cases by helping investigate ballistics and criminal gangs that might be engaged in weapons trafficking, rather than engaging in broad warrant sweeps.
“Those are the types of things that will help us in the long term change the outcome of these cases,” he said. “What we don’t need is, ‘Let’s go and pick up a bunch of people.’ ”
Gowen reported from Lawrence, Kan. Devlin Barrett and Nick Miroff contributed to this report.