As Trump touts ‘law and order,’ is crackdown on cities working?

When federal officials announced they charged 61 people in Chicago as part of Operation Legend in August, that number meant little to Marquinn McDonald, who goes on late-night patrols in his Southside neighborhood to make sure the elderly, women and children get home safely. 

“They have their numbers. That’s beautiful. They made 61 arrests,” he said with some sarcasm. “OK, you locked up a person, but another person just died.”

Weekly murder numbers did drop after Operation Legend, a crime-fighting initiative that the Justice Department began this summer, came to Chicago. The week the charges were announced, 10 people were killed – less than half from before Operation Legend was started in the city. But that number has since doubled again. 

The Trump administration has used the muscle of the federal government to crack down on violent crimes, expanding Operation Legend to nine cities since July. At President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies, the words “law and order” have become a staple, as he sells himself to voters as a tough-on-crime leader while casting big cities led by Democrats as places where anarchy and lawlessness reign.

His partner in the effort has been Attorney General William Barr, whose Justice Department sent hundreds of federal officers to Kansas City, Missouri; Chicago; Albuquerque; Detroit; Cleveland; Milwaukee; Memphis; St. Louis and Indianapolis. Thousands have been arrested, including many fugitives. Dozens of guns and significant amounts of drugs also have been seized.

But violent crime is far from dissipating in cities where the heavily trumpeted federal initiative was launched, and experts say it’s far too early to assess whether Operation Legend is a success or a “prop.”

‘Staying power’ vs. ‘just for show’

Last week, Barr credited the program for “dramatic reductions” in homicide and other violent offenses.

However, Barr acknowledged the challenge to produce results quickly. In Milwaukee, Barr said nonfatal shootings have declined in the weeks since Operation Legend arrived in the city, but there has been no corresponding drop in murders. 

Operation Legend:Barr announces 1,000 arrests, including suspects in 90 murders under federal initiative

It’s unclear how long Operation Legend will last in these cities, but federal officers sent to Kansas City, Missouri, left after a little over two months. The Justice Department is assessing whether to expand elsewhere.

Experts say making a meaningful and enduring impact on violent crime requires more than just a temporary surge of badges on the streets. 

“There has to be staying power,” said Chris Swecker, former chief of the FBI’s Criminal Division. “If all you are doing is surging resources and pulling them back, that’s just for show.”

The rushed nature of the program – timed in the months leading up to the election and, at times, without buy-in from local officials in the cities where it was expanded – has opened it to criticism that it was a political prop for Trump’s reelection campaign and aggressive law-and-order message.

Others, however, expressed gratitude for the program.

In Detroit, Operation Legend has led to the seizure of drugs and 189 illegal guns and the arrest of 290 fugitives since the program was started two months ago, said Matthew Schneider, U.S. attorney in Michigan’s Eastern District.

“If we did not have Operation Legend, those guns and those drugs will still be on the streets … That’s literally saving lives,” Schneider said. “Those fugitives were wanted for murder and sexual assault and they’re off the streets, and that reduces crime.”

President Donald Trump walks with Attorney General William Barr, left, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd in Washington, June 1, 2020.

Crime as a campaign issue

Trump has long talked about rising crime in the country, particularly in big cities. 

“Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities,” he tweeted in 2016, shortly after he won the GOP nomination and around the time he also declared himself the “law-and-order candidate.” 

Trump’s rhetoric harkens back to 1968, when Richard Nixon ran on a law-and-order message and promised to speak for “non-shouters, the non-demonstrators” who are “not guilty of crime that plagues the land.”

In his inaugural address, Trump railed against “American carnage,” and his positioning has heightened as he seeks a second term.

Last week, the Justice Department singled out New York City, Portland, Oregon and Seattle as “anarchist jurisdictions,” citing violence in those cities amid a period of civil unrest against police brutality after the death of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people.

‘Anarchist jurisdictions’:DOJ singles out New York City, Portland and Seattle amid tensions with Democratic mayors

The surge of federal resources also closely followed deployments of federal officers to Portland, where tactics to quell anti-police protests raised serious questions, prompting some local officials to provide public assurances that the federal government would not overstep its authority. But Barr has said the Operation Legend expansion focused on cities struggling with violent crime and is different from the surge of officers in Portland.

Are cities really under siege?

The language used by the president and repeated on news and social media has impacted the perceptions of many in America. Sixty-five percent of Americans said maintaining law and order is a “major problem” in a Monmouth University poll released this month. Forty-eight percent said they are confident Trump can handle it, while 52% were confident in Biden.

Meanwhile, there are stark divides between those who think American cities are under siege by protesters and counterprotesters. Those living in rural areas are more likely to agree with the sentiment than those living in urban areas, and Republican are more likely to agree with it than Democrats, according to a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll.

USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll:A majority of Americans say cities under siege by protesters

But the president’s rhetoric that the country’s major cities are inundated with violence misrepresents the crime trend in America, criminal justice experts say. 

According to crime data the FBI released this week, the violent crime rate in the country has dropped steadily from 2000 to 2019. Although some cities, including the ones where Operation Legend was launched, have seen upticks in homicides and violent crimes in the past few years and months, those numbers remain far below 1990s levels.

“Many cities experienced crime increases this summer, violent crimes specifically. But none of those cities is awash in crime, if that means historically high crime rates or crime that is washing over the entire population,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. “That is simply not true.”

Why the rise in crime?

Rosenfeld said it’s too early to say definitively why violent crimes rose in some cities this year. But one factor, he said, is likely the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on policing. Crime rates plummeted in some cities in the earlier months of the pandemic as many stayed home, but a study by the National Commission on COVID and Criminal Justice found that homicides and aggravated assault rose from late spring to summer. 

Crime and the pandemic:Crime rates plummet amid the coronavirus pandemic, but not everyone is safer in their home

“Policing levels, police activity remain way down in most places compared to pre-pandemic levels and activity,” said Rosenfeld, who led the study. “Lots of officers are out on quarantine … Police can’t engage with citizens.”

Indeed, the confluence of an economy wracked by COVID-19 and calls to “defund the police” have seen the biggest cuts to police department budgets in a decade, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.

Police have been less “aggressive” in reporting crimes after protests in the past, such as those in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, when violations they reported seeing themselves dropped by half — followed by an increase in the murder rate.

Trump, meanwhile, has blamed a far-left, anti-police movement in announcing the expansion of Operation Legend during a public appearance with Barr and other federal officials in July. In a speech shrouded in political overtones, Trump called to end “this bloodshed.”

‘Not a victory lap’

In Kansas City, where Operation Legend first began in early July after the death of 4-year-old LeGend Talifero, officials said violent crime, including homicides, dropped in the weeks after federal officers arrived. But homicides are still on pace to surpass last year’s numbers.

Federal and local officials acknowledged as much on Monday, when they announced the surge of federal officers has ended in Kansas City. The operation led to 500 arrests, including about 150 who were charged with federal gun and drug crimes and nearly three dozen homicide suspects.

“This is not a victory lap … Violent crime continues to be at unacceptable levels … The surge (of federal officers) to Kansas City has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean our effort has come to an end,” Tim Garrison, U.S. attorney in Missouri’s Western District, told reporters, adding that a handful of federal agents have been permanently assigned to beef up staffing at the Kansas City Police Department. 

A surge in Chicago:Donald Trump announces a ‘surge’ of federal law officers in Chicago to work with the city on crime problem

Operation Legend expands:Federal agents, officers head to Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee as Operation Legend expands

Looking for lasting change

Local officials said that while they appreciated the additional federal resources, reducing violent crime in their cities require more than a one-size-fits-all approach of arresting people by the hundreds or seizing guns by the dozens. 

In Albuquerque, which has been experiencing a steady uptick in violent crimes since at least 2012, the Justice Department has charged 60 people for gun and drug crimes. But acting Police Chief Harold Medina said Operation Legend has not had a significant impact on homicide numbers since it started there two months ago. 

So far, Albuquerque has seen 56 homicides, a bit lower than around the same time in 2019, when the city saw a record of about 80 homicides. 

“I haven’t had a period of time when we had violent crime rates get reduced as a result of a federal operation. I think their heart is in the right place to help us, they want to assist us,” Medina said. 

Attorney General William Barr speaks on Operation Legend, the federal law enforcement operation, during a press conference in Chicago, Sept. 9, 2020.

But he also said adding more officers to the streets isn’t necessarily what Albuquerque needed. The police department already arrests thousands of people a year, he said. Getting them through the court system is the bigger hurdle.

“Instead of getting 20 agents, I kind of wish they would send us 20 prosecutors,” Medina said.

John Anderson, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, said Operation Legend was never meant to be an indefinite surge of federal officers. 

“The Department of Justice and the attorney general recognize that combatting violent crime is the responsibility of local law enforcement,” Anderson said.

Still, he said, the program was not “a band-aid type solution,” adding that Operation Legend also provides longer-term funding to beef up Albuquerque’s police force. 

“One of the criticisms that we’ve heard and taken to heart has been this idea that there will be a federal law enforcement push to reduce crime, and then the feds leave and crime will go back up,” Anderson said. “The federal government’s efforts to fight violent crime go back well before Operation Legend. In my mind … to say this is just a political ploy for an election year is defied by facts and history.”

Nationwide, the Justice Department has allotted millions of dollars for crime-fighting efforts and to hire more police officers in Operation Legend cities. 

The Justice Department has used a vast array of resources in its arsenal, including intelligence analysts, forensic experts and fugitive trackers to rid the streets of violent criminals. 

Still, local officials felt the program does little to prevent violent crime in the long term.

“The long-term solution is changing the culture of the city,” Medina said, adding that addressing issues such as substance abuse among young people should be a part of that. “The short-term solution is lots of arrests.”

In Cleveland, where additional federal resources arrived in late July, 72 have been charged with federal crimes, including 26 involving firearm offenses. The help comes at a time when local murders stand at 117 so far this year, far ahead of the 90 recorded in 2019, according to department statistics.

“There is a lot that the feds bring to the table. They are a great asset, but it can take years to get numbers reduced. Our problem is lack of resources. We aren’t doing anything proactive. Everything we’re doing is reactive,” said a person with knowledge of the department’s operations.

Tension rises:Mayors see broken trust, political agenda in Trump’s surge of federal officers to US cities

“The feds are helping us catch the bad guys, but they are not helping us prevent the bad stuff from happening,” said the source, who is not authorized to comment publicly. 

In Chicago, Operation Legend has led to hundreds of arrests, including 150 who were charged with federal gun and drug crimes. While crimes overall have been declining, homicides have gone the opposite way; 2020 is already the deadliest the city has seen in the last four years. 

CHICAGO CRIME: ‘There’s not a comparable year’

The city’s weekly homicide numbers dipped in July and August, but last week, they rose back to 20 – around the same as when Operation Legend was started there.

In Detroit, where the Justice Department has charged 71 people, the police department’s weekly violent crime numbers don’t show sustained drops since Operation Legend started there in late July. Homicides, aggravated assaults, robbery and sexual assault have largely seesawed up and down.

Schneider, the U.S. attorney from Detroit, said his office’s analysis of Operation Legend’s impact focuses on homicides and nonfatal shootings during the 60-day window before and after the program began. The city saw 75 homicides and 325 nonfatal shootings in the two months before Operation Legend, Schneider said. Those numbers dropped to 54 homicides and 240 nonfatal shootings in the two months after. 

“The statistics show that it’s working. I think it’s going to keep working,” he said.

In Milwaukee, weekly crime totals aren’t available, but the police department said there have been 136 homicides from January to mid-September – already far surpassing the annual totals of the previous two years. There have been more than 500 nonfatal shootings to date, also eclipsing 2019 and 2018 totals by a few dozen.

In the two months since Operation Legend began in Milwaukee, the Justice Department has charged 47 people. The city has seen 40 homicides and 137 nonfatal shootings in that time. During the same time period last year, there were only 16 homicides and 83 nonfatal shootings.

Barr last week signaled that the federal assistance in Milwaukee would continue, as long as “we’re taking violent offenders off the street.”

“We’re going to double-down and continue to push,” Barr said.

Crime-fighting takes time

Swecker, the former chief of the FBI’s Criminal Division, said the federal government for years has surged investigative resources to local communities to address crime problems.

The Justice Department has funneled millions to support Project Safe Neighborhoods, federal collaborations with local law enforcement that largely focus on criminal gangs and gun offenders.

“The goal is to identify the 10 percent who are involved in 90 percent of the crime,” Swecker said. “But it takes time for these types of strategies to work. Typically, the federal government is sending investigative resources and analysts who are tracking cell phones or examining other evidence. They are not sending people to stand guard on the street.

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“It could take a year or longer to see some drop in violence, and that’s if the program is effective and really done right,” Swecker said.

Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general who headed the Justice Department’s research and local grant programs, said the law enforcement partnerships are a staple of the department’s operations.

“But the reality is that, in most cases, you don’t see an immediate impact,” said Robinson, who co-chaired the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing during the Obama administration. “It takes some time to measure results.

“Unless you are focused on a drug gang takedown, to have a longer-term impact you would want to give it five or six months. You also want to be looking at operations that benefit from the federal government’s unique ability to go after high-level players.”

In Chicago, McDonald, the Southside resident, said he doesn’t feel any safer. 

“Everyone thinks that the way you solve crime is by locking people and throwing them in jail … I’m not saying that there aren’t those that may need to go to jail. What I’m saying is that’s not the cure,” said McDonald, a martial arts teacher. 

“It’s like saying, ‘OK, you have an illness, just take this Tylenol for the pain.’”

Two months since the federal initiative was launched in Chicago, McDonald said he’s still petrified every time his wife tells him she’s taking their children out on a stroll.

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