Eyeing Portland, some mayors are wary of Trump's 'Operation Legend'

On paper, President Trump’s newly announced Operation Legend initiative looks like most other crime-fighting efforts: federal authorities from multiple agencies working with local law enforcement to target gangs, drug trafficking and other sources of violent crime.

But the turmoil in Portland, Ore., arguably inflamed by the actions of federal agents, has prompted skepticism from city and state leaders, who fear Operation Legend is a pretext to bring that same chaos to their communities, even as administration officials insist it has a very different mission.

U.S. law enforcement officers were sent to Portland under the aegis of the Federal Protective Service to guard federal property against vandalism after weeks of demonstrations that at times bordered on riots. Operation Legend was conceived as a way to reduce street crime and gang violence in big cities.

But the effectiveness of Operation Legend will depend on collaboration with local police, experts told Yahoo News, and by framing it as a way to upstage state and local officials — Democratic ones — the president appears to have made that collaboration less likely.

“The city of Albuquerque, the mayor, the governor, none of them asked for this assistance,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Wednesday. “In part because there’s simply no trust at a time when you see the kind of chaos that gets sown in a city like Portland.”

Trump and Attorney General William Barr announced at the White House on Wednesday that the plan will send federal law enforcement — agents with the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the U.S. Marshals Service — to Chicago and Albuquerque, N.M., along with Kansas City, Mo., where the initiative launched earlier this month.

Sen. Martin Heinrich wears a black face mask in hallway in the U.S. Capitol
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. (Al Drago/Reuters)

The plan, according to the Department of Justice, is a response to surges in crime in Chicago, Albuquerque and other American cities.

“Chicago is currently experiencing a significant increase in violent crime,” the agency said, “with homicides currently up 51 percent over 2019. Albuquerque is currently on pace to break 2019’s record for homicides in the city. On the weekend of July 10, there were four murders in Albuquerque within a 24-hour period.”

The department will send more than 100 FBI, DEA and ATF investigators to Chicago to aid federal, state and local investigations into the city’s gangs, gun crime and drug trafficking organizations, the department said Wednesday. Albuquerque will get about 25 investigators.

Efforts like Operation Legend are not unusual, and past iterations have been heralded by federal officials as successful.

“It’s not uncommon for there to be partnerships between local law enforcement and the federal authorities around homicide and gun violence and serious violence,” said David Kennedy, a criminal justice professor and the director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Some of that’s routine, because in every city there is the presence of the U.S. attorney or there’s potentially the presence of federal agencies like FBI, DEA and ATF, and there are routine working relationships between local law enforcement and those federal agencies.”

The partnerships are typically driven by local law enforcement, which knows the situation on the ground — who the players are, what to focus on — and federal agencies operate within the confines of their job responsibilities.

In this case, for example, HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) agents from the Department of Homeland Security will conduct investigations into gangs, drug traffickers, violent offenders and gun traffickers in Chicago, according to the DOJ.

Some past joint operations are associated with bringing down crime in some cities. “But those reductions don’t last very long,” Kennedy said. “So the impact of those surges, if it’s there at all, is momentary. And things go back pretty much to the way they were.”

But Operation Legend may play out differently.

Federal officers use chemical irritants and projectiles to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters near the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Friday, July 24, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (Noah Berger/AP)
Federal officers use chemical irritants and projectiles to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Ore., on Friday. (Noah Berger/AP)

“What we’re seeing is [Operation Legend] being rejected by local political authorities. It’s expressly not action that is being asked for or desired by local police and local law enforcement. In many cities, those elected and appointed authorities have made it very clear that they don’t want this. They haven’t asked for it. They don’t need it. They don’t intend to cooperate with it. And those aren’t partnerships.”

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the initiative “is not real crime fighting; it’s politics standing in the way of police work.”

Albuquerque Police Chief Michael Geier denied that crime is surging in the city.

“Contrary to claims by politicians in Washington, D.C., Albuquerque has been keeping overall violent crime flat and has reduced homicides thus far this year,” he said.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot didn’t oppose Operation Legend, but said it’s too soon to say whether the effort will be valuable to the city.

“If those agents are here to actually work in partnership [and] support of [reductions in] gun violence and violent cases, plugging into existing infrastructure of federal agents, not trying to play police in our streets, then that’s something different,” she said Wednesday. “And that may add value. But the proof is going to be in the pudding.”

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, through a spokesperson, told Yahoo News on Thursday that if what Trump and Barr have planned for his city is similar to what’s happening in Portland, “it is unacceptable.” New York was not listed as one of the cities for Operation Legend, but Trump has mentioned the city — where violent crime, which has been falling for decades, turned upward this year — as a potential candidate for federal intervention.

Despite reservations from state and local officials, New Mexico U.S. Attorney John C. Anderson said he’s grateful for the additional resources, according to a statement Wednesday. He also asked the public to not equate Operation Legend with the events in Portland.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks into a microphone through a face mask
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a youth town hall in Harlem on July 17. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

“Portland is not an Operation Legend and Operation Legend was not conceived or announced in response to the events in Portland,” Anderson said. “Nor is Operation Legend directed at controlling protestors or about immigration enforcement.”

The crime-fighting plan comes at a time when community-police relations in many cities are strained, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.

“It’s not hard to imagine that this will actually make the violence worse,” Kennedy said. “Because a lot of the violence that we’re seeing is being driven by the overall skepticism in the community for policing in general.”

The partisan politics surrounding Operation Legend — with Trump framing the intervention as the federal government offering solutions to a problem that Democratic mayors could not solve — could make it difficult for true collaboration to occur, said Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor and Columbia University law professor. But no police departments involved in the initiative have indicated that they don’t plan to cooperate.

“I think underneath all of the posturing by politicians,” he said, “anyone who works in policing in a city like Chicago know — and several others experiencing spikes know — that there’s a real problem and [that] any offer of help should at least be considered, if not accepted.”


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