On July 8, the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri found out in a tweet that his city was the focus of a major new federal law enforcement initiative.
In fact, just a day before Kansas City was named the first participant in the federal-local effort dubbed “Operation Legend,” the U.S. Attorney for Missouri’s Western District had reached out to the mayor’s general counsel, Jane Brown, and asked whether the city was interested in additional federal resources to help fight violent crime.
Within a few hours, Brown told U.S. Attorney Tim Garrison in a text that the mayor was “supportive.” Brown’s office followed up with a letter to Garrison later that day, the Kansas City Star reported.
At that point, no one had even uttered the name “Operation Legend” publicly.
Typically, experts told TPM, several months of planning and meetings would follow, in which federal and local officials would hash out details and determine a precise mission for the federal personnel landing in Kansas City.
Instead, things went straight to prime time, with a nationwide DOJ announcement the day after Garrison’s message to Brown — and a mention by the White House press secretary at a press briefing. On its website, the Justice Department called the operation a “sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative across all federal law enforcement agencies.”
Mayor Quinton Lucas, who later said he hadn’t reviewed the letter, was caught off-guard.
— Mayor Q (@QuintonLucasKC) July 8, 2020
“Certainly none of us expected that a verbal proposal first presented to us on a Tuesday would be announced at a presidential podium on Wednesday,” Brown told TPM.
The Star first reported the behind-the-scenes drama. Garrison told the paper that he, too, was surprised by the White House announcement.
But Mayor Lucas wouldn’t be alone for long. The White House appeared dead set on sowing confusion.
Two weeks after the clumsy Kansas City roll-out, on Wednesday last week, the President and Attorney General Bill Barr announced a new roster of “Operation Legend” cities at a White House event. And city leaders across the country, yet again, were blindsided.
In Cleveland, for example, the city released a statement asserting that it had “not been made aware of any additional federal law enforcement resources coming to the city.”
In Albuquerque, a spokesperson for the city’s police department said that it had not signed onto the initiative — even though the county sheriff with jurisdiction over the city had attended the White House event Wednesday announcing it.
In Milwaukee, the Journal Sentinel reported that city officials hadn’t been consulted about the plan.
In fact, the paper reported, they’d first heard that the city might be involved in some new federal initiative when White House chief of staff Mark Meadows had hinted at it in an interview the previous Sunday on Fox Business Network.
The crossed wires, spanning the hometowns of millions of Americans, left some observers wondering if the Operation Legend expansion was merely a political stunt. The first rule of federal-local crime fighting partnerships, after all, is just that: They’re partnerships.
“When the department wants to increase its focus in any given area, the first thing you always do is coordinate with local officials,” Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the Justice Department during the Obama administration, told TPM.
Especially when it comes to crime-fighting operations like Legend, “local police are really the ones on the street and the front lines,” said Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.
McQuade raised concerns of duplicative investigations or “blue-on-blue” incidents — in which undercover officers unknowingly interact with each other — if local and federal efforts weren’t synced up.
“The idea that locals didn’t even know they were coming — how could they possibly be effective?” she wondered.
Fears Of Portland
At the White House event on Operation Legend, Barr distinguished it from the federal presence in Portland, dubbed “Diligent Valor.” The former was “classic crime fighting,” he said, while the Portland situation was about confronting “mob violence.”
But around the country, the poor communication and fuzzy details clashed with city leaders’ — and citizens’ — fears that the White House was planning on turning their city into another chaotic, camo-clad mess.
The shoddy communications didn’t help.
In Portland, after all, Mayor (and Police Commissioner) Ted Wheeler has said of the federal agents, “We had heard about it first when they were already here.”
And in Seattle, which recently got its own DHS deployment, Mayor Jenny Durkan said that “neither myself nor [Police Chief Carmen] Best were updated regarding the presence of these federal agents.”
“The danger of engaging in an operation like ‘Diligent Valor’ in Portland is, it creates this impression in the public that all federal agents do that,” McQuade told TPM. “It creates this aversion to all federal agents.”
In Chicago, where early reports indicated that dozens of DHS agents were on their way to the city, Mayor Lori Lightfoot tweeted that “Under no circumstances will I allow Donald Trump’s troops to come to Chicago and terrorize our residents.”
But after conversations with Chicago’s U.S. Attorney and the President, Lighthouse’s office said that Trump had confirmed “that he plans to send federal resources to Chicago to supplement ongoing federal investigations pertaining to violent crime.”
The DHS agents, the Justice Department said in its own statement on the operation, were simply being “committed” to the operation — they were “already stationed in Chicago.”
‘It’s Just A Renaming’
The seemingly hurried roll-out of Operation Legend has led some local officials to conclude that the Trump initiative is not so much a new federal initiative as a new name.
Except for Chicago, all of the cities in Operation Legend so far were also included in an earlier DOJ crime fighting initiative announced in December that shares its name with a television show about bow hunting: “Relentless Pursuit.”
“It is our understanding that there are no additional personnel coming to Cleveland,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said Friday. “It is just a renaming of what we were already doing.”
“Operation Relentless Pursuit has since been renamed to Operation Legend,” Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales said the same day.
At a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) pressed Barr on the similarities of the two programs — what he called “a repackaging.”
“So why all the drama? Why join the President at the White House to announce a bold new operation that appears to be neither bold nor new?” Nadler asked.
“We did reboot the program,” Barr said, before asserting that “these police departments and mayors have been asking us for help.”
Miller, the former DOJ spokesperson, smelled politics.
“It looks to me like the type of thing where the White House wanted to have a law enforcement announcement, and called over to DOJ, and said, ‘We need a law enforcement announcement tomorrow, or this afternoon, cobble something together,” he observed. “And DOJ came up with this slapdash approach.”