President Trump announced this afternoon a “surge” in the federal effort to quell the violent crime that is spiking in major American cities.
The effort is along the lines of what Rich Lowry and I discussed on The McCarthy Report podcast last week, and in a column I wrote earlier this month about potential federal approaches to violent crime.
As we’ve noted, there was no need to re-create the wheel here. There is abundant law that gives federal agencies jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute violent crime. Just as significantly, the federal government (the U.S. attorneys’ offices, the FBI, DEA, other federal agencies, and the U.S. courts) not only has a longstanding presence in our nation’s biggest cities. For decades, we’ve also had federal-state task forces, which are joint investigative efforts involving the police and prosecution agencies of the federal, state, and municipal governments to combat gang crime and its staples — street-level narcotics trafficking and gun crimes.
The president, with elaboration from Attorney General Bill Barr, explained that the new effort is called “Operation Legend,” in honor of LeGend Taliferro, a four-year-old boy who was senselessly shot to death in his sleep last month when a still-unidentified gunman opened fire on his family’s apartment in Kansas City.
Barr detailed that Operation Legend had already commenced with a ramp-up of federal agents in Kansas City. The initiative is now being expanded to two other cities with soaring crime, Chicago and Albuquerque. Amid a litany of bloody statistics, Trump noted that 23 people were shot in Chicago just yesterday — 15 of them at a funeral home, where respects were being paid to a man who’d been killed in an earlier drive-by shooting.
Given the demagogic media commentary portraying federal law-enforcement agents in Portland as “stormtroopers” and “militia,” administration officials are understandably stressing that the new initiative is simply an augmentation of existing federal-state collaborations. As Barr put it, these are “standard anti-crime activities we have been carrying on for decades.”
The additional federal agents sent to high-crime cities will be drawn from the FBI, DEA, ATF, the U.S. Marshals Service, and HSI (i.e., the Homeland Security Investigations division, a component of DHS that concentrates on criminal organizations that exploit the immigration system, as well as U.S. financial and travel facilities). These are agencies that regularly coordinate with state and local police. A vital part of the federal effort will be financial support for states and municipalities so that, like the feds, they will be able to contribute more police personnel to the task forces.
A big part of what is envisioned appears to be along the lines of what I described as “Federal Day,” in the aforementioned column. The feds and the state police will work with the local U.S. attorney’s office as well as the state district attorneys. Because there is a broad array of federal and state criminal law that can be applied to violent criminal activity, from isolated assaults to coordinated gang violence, the collaboration will enable law enforcement to bring those arrested to either the federal or state system — whichever makes sense under the circumstances, in terms of efficient processing and an appropriately severe sentence.
Barr recalled that the Justice Department had spearheaded a similar effort several months back, which it called “Relentless Pursuit,” but that it was aborted as governments turned their attention to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Critics will be quick to note that there was a political edge to the White House announcement. The president asserted that “lawlessness” was being “pushed by the radical Left,” that the “far Left” is pushing to “break up” and “defund” police departments, and that city governments almost uniformly run by Democrats had adopted policies that contributed to the rise in crime. These, Trump said, included sanctuary city practices, which impede the federal enforcement of the immigration laws and have resulted in aliens, who have committed serious crimes, being released back onto the streets rather than being deported. Trump bemoaned “deadly policies and deadly politicians.”
For his part, Barr observed that crime had begun to creep back up toward the end of the Obama administration, and that initiatives such as Relentless Pursuit aimed to push it back down. To be sure, violent crime has edged up in some areas over the past five years (homicide rates, in particular, increased in 2015 and 2016); but even so, it was not nearly at the levels of the early 1990s.
While stressing that the federal government intended to what it could to reverse the alarming rise in crime that followed George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis and the subsequent demonization of police, Trump and Barr emphasized that local elected political leadership is primarily responsible for keeping law and order. The president repeated his ongoing theme that cities in need of federal help “should call” to ask for it. But he also made clear that the federal government is obliged to act to protect citizens, whether asked to do so or not.
Author’s note: In the column as originally published, I recounted Attorney General Barr’s assertion, during the White House announcement, that after Operation Legend began, federal agents in Kansas City made 200 arrests in a two-week period. According to media reporting by McClatchy and the Kansas City Star, the Justice Department has since explained that this was erroneous, and that there have instead been 200 federal arrests since December 2019, when the Justice Department launched Operation Relentless Pursuit. I note that the attorney general’s written remarks as prepared for delivery did not contain the claim about 200 arrests, but did state that the Justice Department had “sent over 200 federal agents to Kansas City” to work on the enhanced effort against violent crime.
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