MILWAUKEE -- President Donald Trump announced he will send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help combat rising crime, expanding the administration’s intervention into local enforcement as he runs for reelection under a “law and order” mantle. He said the program will be expanded to Milwaukee in the next few weeks.
Using the same alarmist language he has employed to describe illegal immigration, President Trump painted Democrat-led cities as out of control and lashed out at the “radical left," which he blamed for rising violence in some cities, even though criminal justice experts say it defies easy explanation.
“In recent weeks there has been a radical movement to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police department,” President Trump said Wednesday at a White House event, blaming the movement for “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence."
“This bloodshed must end," he said. “This bloodshed will end.”
The decision to dispatch federal agents to American cities is playing out at a hyperpoliticized moment when President Trump is grasping for a new reelection strategy after the coronavirus upended the economy, dismantling what his campaign had seen as his ticket to a second term. With less than four months until Election Day, President Trump has been warning that violence will worsen if his Democratic rival Joe Biden is elected in November and Democrats have a chance to make the police reforms they have endorsed after the killing of George Floyd and nationwide protests demanding racial justice.
President Trump and Barr spoke only of Chicago and Albuquerque, but the White House said in a later press release that the program would be expanded in the next few weeks into Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee, as well.
Governor Tony Evers responds
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers wants President Trump to keep federal agents out of Milwaukee. Evers Thursday said he sent a letter to the president to indicate "this type of unilateral intervention has not been requested by either the City of Milwaukee or the State and is not welcome in Wisconsin.“
"I oppose that, and I sent the president a letter expressing my concern about sending agents to Milwaukee, or Madison, or anyplace in the state," said Evers. "I have full faith and trust not only in the people in Wisconsin, but also the folks that serve in our police departments. Amping up the federal presence will, I believe, create more turmoil."
Evers said he was “deeply disturbed" to hear White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows suggest in a television interview Sunday that agents might travel to Milwaukee without any direct communication with his office. Evers said he’s strongly opposed to the move, warning it will only make things worse. Wisconsin authorities, including the state’s National Guard, can handle protests, he said.
“This is not a moment to double down and unnecessarily increase police presence, especially without invitation,” Evers wrote. “As we have seen in Portland, this excessive and unwelcome federal law enforcement presence only makes these situations more volatile and dangerous.”
Aides for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and Police Chief Alfonso Morales didn’t immediately respond to messages.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul responds
Attorney General Josh Kaul today issued the following statement Thursday:
"If the Trump administration were serious about protecting the safety of Wisconsinites, it would be leading an effective national response to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the administration is feverishly attempting to distract attention from that colossal—and continuing—failure through the tool it knows best: stoking chaos and division.
"During this administration, and especially in recent weeks, we have witnessed the President employing fascist tactics, including his demonization of immigrants, his attacks on communities with large minority populations and the elected representatives of thoe communities, the blatantly illegal use of force against protesters near the White House, and the deployment of secret federal police to Portland over the objections of state and local officials.
"I don’t use the phrase “fascist tactics” lightly. But there is no more accurate way to describe this administration’s repeated resort to and incitement of racism, xenophobia, and violence.
"In the context of recent events, the Trump administration’s announcement today can only be expected to increase concern and division. Moreover, it fails to include any commitment that agents will participate in long-term, intensive investigations that can lead to real improvements in public safety. I am concerned that this is no more than a short-term stunt, and I encourage our federal representatives to oppose this action unless and until the Trump administration commits to working collaboratively with state and local officials and is much more transparent about its plans.
"I have great respect for the dedicated federal agents and prosecutors in Wisconsin and across the country who work day in and day out to make communities safer. Under ordinary circumstances, I would welcome the announcement of additional federal resources to help solve and prevent violent crimes in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has made it abundantly clear that it’s happy to politicize law enforcement; the administration’s actions must be met with great skepticism.
"My office will continue working to learn more about the plans for the additional agents coming to Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Department of Justice works to protect the public, and we are happy to work with additional federal agents if there is transparency, collaboration, and it’s clear that the agents will be working to reduce violent crime. However, if the agents will be interfering with peaceful protests or attempting to build arrest statistics without a broader concern for improving public safety, I will be speaking out against their presence here, and I will take any appropriate legal action."
ACLU of Wisconsin responds
Following President Trump’s announcement that he plans to send federal agents to Milwaukee and other Midwestern cities, ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ott issued this statement Thursday:
“Federal forces in Portland have operated so violently and recklessly that local authorities have demanded their removal. This lawlessness we saw from federal agents in Portland was inexcusable and unconstitutional.
“Against that deeply problematic backdrop, plans to send similar forces to Milwaukee make no sense. We don’t need a repeat of this failed, chaotic approach in Wisconsin.
“When officers move through a neighborhood in armored vehicles, meeting peaceful protesters with rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and other munitions, they intensify tensions when their job is to diffuse them. Our streets are not warzones, and protesters are not enemy combatants—yet too often we see communities, particularly those where Black and brown people live, treated as if they were.
“The President’s plan poses a serious risk of causing further violence and harm. We hope that other Wisconsin residents and elected officials will join us in saying: stay away.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett responds
Mayor Barrett issued this statement Thursday:
“Given the events that have taken place in Portland over the last few nights, I am extremely concerned that President Trump is looking for opportunities to create more political division in cities across the nation. Federal agents are not welcome here for that purpose.”
“If the federal presence is to truly cooperate with local law enforcement, then it is imperative the limits of their activities are clearly delineated and monitored.”
Milwaukee Police Department responds
"In May 2020, the Milwaukee Police Department joined U.S. Attorney Matthew Krueger, Mayor Tom Barrett and our federal partners to announce our partnership with Operation Relentless Pursuit to address violent crime, drug trafficking and the illegal use of firearms.
"Operation Relentless Pursuit has since been renamed to Operation Legend after the tragic death of four-year-old LeGend Taliferro in Kansas City, Missouri in June 2020. Despite the name change, the focus of this operation remains the same and we remain committed to our partnership.
"The Milwaukee Police Department is aware of the deployment of federal agents to other cities for the purpose of providing support to those local law enforcement agencies as they address their civil unrest. The Milwaukee Police Department respectfully declines the deployment of federal agents in Milwaukee for this purpose. We look forward to continuing to work with our federal partners on other joint initiatives such as those addressing violent crime, drug trafficking, internet crimes against children, and human trafficking."
United States Attorney Matthew Krueger responds:
U.S. Attorney Matthew Krueger with the Eastern District of Wisconsin issued this statement Thursday:
"Regarding Operation Legend The expansion of Operation Legend to Milwaukee reflects a commitment of federal resources to work jointly with state and local efforts to reduce violent crime.
"Violent crime has cut short the lives of far too many Milwaukee residents, with homicides spiking approximately 90% this year. Operation Legend will enhance existing crime reduction strategies, such as Project Safe Neighborhoods, to focus on the small number of individuals who cause most of Milwaukee’s violence.
"Operation Legend does not entail any “federal troops” or “occupation” of Milwaukee, as some have mistakenly claimed. It will involve trained investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the United States Marshals Service, who will work in coordination with state and local partners, as they always have done in Milwaukee. We anticipate giving more details about Operation Legend in the coming days. Working together, we will make Milwaukee safer for everyone."
A collection of Chicago activist groups want a judge to block federal agents sent to the city to combat violent crime from interfering in or policing protests, arguing in a lawsuit filed Thursday that the surge ordered by President Trump will inhibit residents' ability to hold demonstrations.
The suit names Attorney General William Barr along with the heads of other federal agencies whose agents are part of the surge plan announced at the White House on Wednesday. The announcement did little to calm some Chicago residents’ fear that the agents’ presence will lead to the violent clashes between demonstrators and federal agents seen in Portland.
Aislinn Pulley, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Chicago, said the federal strategy uses crime as an excuse to “stifle righteous rage and anger at the continued killing of Black people by police.”
“We will not be threatened,” Pulley said at a news conference announcing the suit. “We will not be coerced into suppressing our rage.”
The lawsuit also asks a judge to prevent agents in Chicago from making arrests or detaining people without probable cause, along with requiring agents to identify themselves and their agency and explain why someone is being arrested.
The planned surge already has caused some members of the activist groups to draw back from protest plans this weekend, “due to the well-founded fear that they will be brutalized or kidnapped by federal agents for no reason other than being a protestor, journalist, or legal observer on the streets and sidewalks of Chicago,” attorneys wrote.
In Oregon, the state has asked a judge for a similar restraining order against agents deployed to quell protests in Portland. The suit filed by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum accuses federal agents of arresting protesters without probable cause, whisking them away in unmarked cars and using excessive force.
Federal authorities have disputed those allegations.
Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Wednesday also sought to separate the mission in Portland — to protect federal property — from the goal of helping stop violent crime. Barr said the additional agents will focus on “classic crime fighting," expanding an existing operation that sent federal agents to Kansas City, Missouri, after a 4-year-old boy’s shooting death.
Meanwhile, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he and police Chief James Craig “are comfortable” that any agents coming to the city will not be under the Department of Homeland Security.
“There was certainly no justification,” Duggan said. “We haven’t had the looting, we haven’t had the fires, which you’ve seen in other cities. I’ve never seen as many illegal guns on the streets as we have today. If they want to have more ATF officers dealing with the illegal trafficking of guns, that would be a welcome contribution.”
The Chicago activists' suit said the Trump administration's public statements about the agents' duties mean little against the president's repeated criticism of demonstrators in U.S. cities following the death of George Floyd. The suit specifically referenced President Trump's comments Wednesday blaming a push to “defund, dismantle and dissolve” police departments for violent crime along with the president's past support for federal agents' presence in Portland.
“Neither the President, Defendant Barr, nor Defendant Wolf gave any assurance that the ‘hundreds’ of federal agents flooding Chicago would leave protestors alone,” the activists' lawsuit said. “At no time did they acknowledge that the federal government had overstepped in Portland. At no time did they agree that the federal law enforcement activities currently taking place in Portland would be limited to Portland.”
Messages left Thursday for representatives of the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security seeking comment on the lawsuit were not immediately returned.
More on "Operation LeGend"
Crime began surging in some cities when stay-at-home orders lifted. Criminal justice experts seeking answers have pointed to the unprecedented moment: a pandemic that has killed over 140,000 Americans, historic unemployment, a mass reckoning over race and police brutality, intense stress and even the weather. Compared with other years, crime in 2020 is down overall.
The plan President Trump announced Wednesday expands an existing program that sent hundreds of federal agents to Kansas City, Missouri, after a 4-year-old boy’s shooting death to help quell a record rise in violence. Sending federal agents to help localities is not uncommon; Attorney General William Barr announced a similar surge effort in December for seven cities with spiking violence. But this effort will include at least 100 Department of Homeland Security Investigations officers who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations, in addition to personnel under the Justice Department umbrella.
DHS officers have already been dispatched to Portland, Oregon, and other localities to protect federal property and monuments as President Trump has lambasted efforts by protesters to knock down Confederate statutes.
Local authorities there have complained that agents have exacerbated tensions on the streets, while residents have accused the government of violating their constitutional rights. Indeed, civil unrest escalated after federal agents were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause.
Since the racial justice protests began, President Trump's campaign has leaned heavily into a pledge to maintain “law and order" as it has tried to tie Biden to a small group of radicals and anarchists it claims is trying to destabilize America’s cities and rewrite history.
The campaign believes the push can help President Trump by drumming up support from suburban and older voters who may be rattled by violent images, which have been broadcast often by conservative media outlets.
In Chicago, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who had initially blasted the news, said the U.S. attorney’s office will supervise the additional agents joining existing federal law enforcement offices.
“If those agents are here to actually work in partnership on support of 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, while also accusing the president of trying to distract from scrutiny of the federal response to the pandemic.
In New Mexico, Democratic elected officials had cautioned President Trump against sending in federal agents, with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich calling on Bernalillo County Sheriff Manny Gonzales to resign for attending the White House event.
“Instead of collaborating with the Albuquerque Police Department, the Sheriff is inviting the President’s stormtroopers into Albuquerque,” Heinrich said in a statement.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf drew a distinction between the mission in Portland — to protect federal property — and the surges in Kansas City, Chicago and Albuquerque to help stop violence.
Albuquerque and Chicago will be getting millions of dollars for new officers, and the Justice Department will reimburse Chicago $3.5 million for local law enforcement’s work on the federal task force.
In Kansas City, the top federal prosecutor said any agents involved in an operation to reduce violent crime in the area will be clearly identifiable when making arrests, unlike what has been seen in Portland. Hundreds of extra agents have been sent.
“These agents won’t be patrolling the streets,” U.S. Attorney Timothy Garrison said. “They won’t replace or usurp the authority of local officers.”
Operation Legend — named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot while sleeping in a Kansas City apartment last month — was announced July 8.
“My one and only child who fought through open heart surgery at four months is gone due to senseless gun violence," LeGend's mother, Charon Powell, said at the White House. "Children are supposed to be our future and our son didn’t make it to kindergarten.”
The absence of a clear, publicly available plan has left city leaders, residents and even federal agencies to speculate about exactly what will happen and when. Here’s a look at what’s known so far:
Q: What do President Trump and other federal officials say?
A: President Trump said hundreds of agents will be drawn from the Justice Department, which includes the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Precise numbers were not provided. Attorney General Bill Barr suggested at one point that around 200 new agents could end up in Chicago.
On Thursday, the Justice Department said it also planned to send agents to Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee in coming weeks.
Q: Is this deployment similar to the one involving Portland?
A: It doesn’t seem so. Federal agents wearing camouflage without clear identification hit the streets in Portland to protect federal property amid demonstrations against police brutality. Some of the agents were accused of beating unarmed protesters, even throwing some into unmarked vehicles.
For now, the plan for Chicago and Albuquerque does not seem to include federal agents engaging with protesters. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Barr both said the mission in Chicago and Albuquerque would differ from the mission in Portland.
Q: What's President Trump's motivation?
A: That’s not entirely clear. He said Wednesday he wanted to quell what he called “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.” He added: “This bloodshed will end.”
But he didn’t shy away from trying to score political points. He blamed Democrats who lead cities like Chicago and Albuquerque for the spikes in violence.
The federal intervention seems to be part of a campaign strategy to claim the mantle of law-and-order president. His administration last week also resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, potentially providing President Trump further grounds for the claim.
Democrats have accused the president of trying to distract attention from his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Q: Where will the agents come from?
A: It's not clear yet. But the number of agents and their agencies will be telling. If more agents come from the ATF, that suggests the government's focus is on solving gun crimes. More agents from the DEA would indicate an emphasis on trafficking, cartels and drug-dealing street gangs.
It also isn’t clear how many agents will be assigned to U.S. attorney’s offices to help investigate gun crimes and gang conspiracies that underpin much of the violence.
Q: Is this part of an existing program?
A: Yes. The Trump administration announced July 8 that it was sending more than 200 agents to Kansas City, Missouri, for the same reason under a program it dubbed Operation Legend, named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot while sleeping in a Kansas City apartment last month.
The agents in Kansas City were to investigate homicides, shootings and violent crime in cooperation with local law enforcement agencies, officials said.
“Operation Legend has no relationship whatsoever to protests, marches and demonstrations,” Don Ledford, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the western district of Missouri, said earlier this week.
Q: Has this happened before?
A: Yes. For decades, administrations have dispatched extra federal agents to cities during surges of violence, natural disasters and other crises.
In December, the Trump administration launched a crime-fighting initiative called Operation Relentless Pursuit, which boosted federal resources for seven cities. It also committed more than $70 million in federal grants to hire new officers and purchase new equipment, among other things.
Q: What's the difference this time?
A: An obvious difference is that agents are being sent during historic protests over police brutality. The deployments are also happening amid criticism that the Trump administration is already being too heavy handed.
If the administration dispatches hundreds of agents at a time, that is far greater than previous deployments.
In 2017, for instance, the administration dispatched around 20 extra ATF agents to Chicago to help address gun violence months after the president tweeted that, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on … I will send in the Feds!” The new agents joined around 35 ATF agents already based in the city.
Q: How have cities reacted?
A: Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot sounded alarmed in recent weeks as the Trump administration raised the prospect of more aggressive federal intervention.
But since this week’s announcement about sending additional federal agents, she’s struck a cautiously optimistic chord, saying she was encouraged that the U.S. attorney’s office would supervise at least some of the agents.
If those agents work in partnership with existing federal efforts to curb violence, "not trying to play police in our streets, then that’s something different,” she said.
She also said that if there are “steps out of line,” she will “take the president to court.”