Operation Legend puts focus on violent crime, not politics
At the small apartment where 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro was shot dead in his sleep, the sliding glass door is riddled with bullet holes. Glass is still strewn on the patio outside, the shards crunching under the feet of Attorney General William Barr and Police Chief Rick Smith as they visit the crime scene.
After the Kansas City boy was killed in June by a gunshot meant for somebody else, the Trump administration launched a nationwide crackdown on violent crime named in his honor. The Associated Press obtained access to briefings and law enforcement operations for an inside look at Operation Legend as Barr visited law enforcement officials in Detroit, Kansas City and Cleveland.
President Donald Trump and his attorney general have touted the operation, spread across nine U.S. cities, as a much-needed answer to spiking crime that Trump claims is caused, at least in part, by the police reform movement and protests that have swept across the U.S. since George Floyd’s death in May.
Trump has seized on the operation to showcase what he says is his law-and-order prowess, claiming he’s countering rising crime in cities run by Democrats.
“The future of our country, and indeed our civilization, is at stake,” Trump said last week. “These are all Democrat-run places. But these are people that don’t have any clue what they’re doing.”
But spiking crime defies easy explanation, experts say, pointing to a toxic mix of issues facing America in 2020: an unemployment rate not seen in a generation, a pandemic that has killed more than 175,000 people, stay-at-home orders, rising anger over police brutality, intense stress, even the weather.
And to the 300 investigators deployed to the nine cities, and the local law enforcement getting help, this isn’t about politics. It’s about reducing crime, working to solve outstanding cases and prioritizing the arrest of violent criminals. Police have welcomed the partnership, as they have with previous operations, and some activists are cautiously optimistic. Despite what Trump has claimed, the operation is routine. Some federal operations go on for months or years, and the arrests can number in the thousands.
So far, Operation Legend has yielded over 1,000 arrests for both state and federal crimes, like murder and drug and robbery offenses, with many of the people already wanted by police. Some 200 people are facing steeper federal charges, and 400 illegal firearms were seized. Besides Kansas City, Detroit and Cleveland, the Justice Department has sent additional personnel to Chicago, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Memphis, Tenn.
In Detroit, agents circled a motel that police officials said had been a hotbed for criminal activity for years. As the caravan pulled into the parking lot of the yellow building, Barr and Police Chief James Craig hovered overhead in a helicopter outfitted with special cameras to watch from the sky.
Five people were arrested, and agents seized three ounces of cocaine, one ounce of fentanyl and a handgun.
Craig said the execution of the operation — and in some cases bringing federal charges, which generally result in stiffer penalties — will help to drive down violent crime in Detroit and get so-called “trigger-pullers” off the street.
“This is certainly welcomed,” Craig told the AP. “We have always had a history of working well with our federal partners. So, to get the added resources and engage in an operation like we did today, that’s what makes a difference in our community in reducing violence.”
Malik Shabazz, 58, a longtime activist in Detroit, said any help the city gets to address rising crime will help, but he believes the motives should be scrutinized. The answer, he said, is not simply to flood neighborhoods and streets with more police. The roots of crime are deep and lie in socioeconomic disparities, racism, segregation and other ills born of America’s racism.
“Do we have a crime, grime and slime problem in Detroit? Yes, we do,” Shabazz said. “Every city does. Every township does. While we need help with all these problems, we need resources. I’m all about organizing against the crime, but people need jobs with living wages and dignity and health insurance. We need better education.”
In Kansas City, local police detectives working in the same squad room with federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Drug Enforcement Administration have compiled large boards listing all open homicide cases, a reminder of the reason they are pushing to get shooters off the street.
As of Friday, there had been 125 homicides in Kansas City this year, according to police statistics. The city is on pace to top the record number of homicides from the early 1990s, and non-lethal shootings also are on the rise. The city ended 2019 with 150 homicides.
When the operation was announced in July, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a Democrat, said he welcomed any help to get violent criminals off the streets, but he does not want agents used to investigate non-violent crimes to increase arrest numbers.
Several civil rights groups have publicly opposed the operation and pushed Lucas to more forcefully denounce it and lead the effort to reduce police budgets to better fund social organizations, such as housing and health care.
Federal agents in Cleveland recovered dozens of weapons and seized drugs during multiple raids in the last few weeks. Nearly three dozen people have been charged with federal crimes there.
Kareem Hinton of Black Lives Matter Cleveland believes the operation is a federal effort to “squash” police accountability and reforms with stop-and-frisk tactics that will ensnare innocent people. He says the increases in violent crime have been triggered by high unemployment and a lack of services to deal with untreated mental health problems.
“Rather than have police handle the crime,” Hinton said, “Why not have services in place to handle the problems creating the crime.”
Justice Department officials have repeatedly said the agents are not there to replace officers, take on a standard policing role or squash accountability. Instead, they work side-by-side with detectives to solve lingering homicide cases and target specific violent criminals who generally drive up crime rates.
“I’m really happy with the way it’s going,” Barr said. “They are getting a lot of these bad guys off the streets.”
Lucas said residents want murders solved, period.
“What they don’t want is an outside intrusive force taking the place of community policing,” he said. “If this is the sort of group that pinpoints murders, they are wanted. If they extend to more broad-based policing, we don’t want them here to supplant our local police department, especially at a time when people are already asking questions about police relationships with the community.”
The man suspected of killing LeGend was arrested recently in the namesake partnership. The boy’s mother said this week she hoped more deaths would be solved.
“I am beginning to get justice for my son,” Charron Powell said. “But I want to make sure I help everyone out I can.”
Associated Press writers Colleen Long in Washington, Corey Williams in Detroit, Margaret Stafford in Liberty, Mo., and Mark Gillispie in Cleveland contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show the Kansas City mayor said “supplant,” not “supplement.”