'This is different:' Prosecutor says federal agents headed to Milwaukee won't police protests

MADISON — The U.S. attorney for Milwaukee sought to alleviate concerns Friday about federal agents being sent to the city by President Donald Trump, saying they will assist local and state law enforcement in combating violent crime and would not be breaking up protests.

U.S. Attorney Matthew Krueger held video conferences with reporters to clarify that the agents won't be patrolling Milwaukee's streets or breaking up protests as they have been doing in Portland, Oregon, in recent days. Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the agents of arresting people without probable cause, whisking them away in unmarked cars and using excessive force.

President Trump announced Thursday, July 23 that he was sending such agents to more U.S. cities, including Chicago and Milwaukee, to combat a rise in violent crime as part of an operation that started in May.

Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales responds to calls for federal agents

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 Department of Homeland Security Investigations officers who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations, in addition to personnel under the Justice Department umbrella.

Wisconsin Democrats have decried the decision to send federal agents to Milwaukee, saying they don't want to see a repeat of what has happened in Portland. Gov. Tony Evers sent President Trump a letter on Wednesday, July 22 complaining that he was never consulted and saying that injecting federal agents into protests would only make things worse. The state's Democratic attorney general, Josh Kaul, on Thursday called the agents' tactics in Portland “fascist” and vowed to take legal action if they interfere with protests in Milwaukee.

Krueger, a Trump appointee, stressed during his video conference with Associated Press reporters that the additional agents sent to Milwaukee won't be on the streets and will instead be working with state and local investigators to solve violent crime. He said the arrangement is similar to existing partnerships between federal, state and local authorities. He spent Thursday consulting with local authorities about the surge in agents, he said.

"This is different from the response seen in Portland, where (agents) were protecting federal property," Krueger said. “That's not what's coming to Milwaukee. It’s not by any stretch a takeover or sweeping in by federal authorities."

Krueger pointed to rising homicide rates in Milwaukee as justification for the decision to bring in more agents. The city has had 94 homicides so far this year, according to the police department. It had 98 in all of 2019 and 101 the previous year, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel database.

“I don't think this is a political issue,” Krueger said. “This is a time to collaborate because Milwaukee has seen unacceptable levels of violence.”

Krueger said the additional agents would come from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Marshals Service. He said he had no further details on how many agents would be coming or when they might arrive.

Asked for his reaction to Krueger's remarks that the agents won't break up protests, Gov. Evers' spokeswoman, Britt Cudaback, said the governor's letter to President Trump stands. Kaul's spokeswoman, Gillian Drummond, had no immediate comment.

The Milwaukee Police Department issued a statement saying that it has worked jointly with Krueger on the operation since May and the department remains committed to its partnership with his office. But the department declines any assistance from federal agents in controlling protests, the statement said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Democrat, said in a statement that he's worried that President Trump is trying to stoke political divisions and federal agents aren't welcome in Milwaukee if that's their mission.

“If the federal presence is to truly cooperate with local law enforcement, then it is imperative the limits of their activities are clearly defined and monitored,” he said.