Operation Legend Is Another Attempt to ‘Federalize’ Policing. Organizers Are Pushing Back.
President Trump and the DOJ are funding federal policing programs in cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Baltimore, but advocates say they’re unnecessary, harmful, and ineffective.
On July 22, President Donald Trump announced that he would send more federal law enforcement officers and money to Kansas City, Chicago, and Albuquerque. Operation Legend, he said, would be part of the federal response to “a radical movement to defund, dismantle, and dissolve our police departments,” and to what the Justice Department recently called a “surge” in violent crime in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. (While murders are up in some cities, overall crime is down everywhere.)
Trump’s announcement came after federal agents violently clashed with protesters in Portland, Oregon. The administration has since pulled the agents out of the city, but over the weekend, when protests there and in Chicago erupted, the president suggested that the National Guard be sent in to quell unrest.
Organizers object to such a federalized response to local crime and argue that the government is wrong to use force to address what they view as social problems. They also say that federal task forces like Operation Legend are nothing new and point to several predecessors, including Operation Relentless Pursuit announced just last year.
During an October 2019 meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Trump hinted at ORP’s announcement, saying that Attorney General Bill Barr would soon announce a “new crackdown on violent crime,” calling it “The Surge.”
“We can come up with lots of names, but we’re going to be doing something that’s very dramatic,” he said, adding that he had made $600 million worth of surplus military equipment available to local law enforcement agencies.
The president’s announcement “rang bells for us,” said Erica Caines, an organizer in Baltimore with Black Alliance for Peace whose work often centers advocacy for police demilitarization and community control. Except for among organizers who work on these issues, the announcement was largely met with silence.
In December, Barr formally introduced ORP—intended to target “violent crime in seven of America’s most violent cities,” and committed to increasing the number of federal agents and “bulking up” federal task forces with $71 million in grant funding. Cities had to apply to receive the money.
The cities—Kansas City, Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, and Milwaukee—could use the money to hire new officers, pay overtime and benefits, finance “federally deputized task force officers,” and augment equipment and technology. “Officers assigned to ORP task force operations” can receive $50 million with up to $125,000 in salary and benefits for each position awarded under the grant.
Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale, executive director of Justice Strategies Judith Green, National Network for Justice organizer Laura Sager, and Los Angeles-based organizer Hamid Khan have enlisted local organizers across the country to build Resist ORP, a grassroots effort to push back against the federal program.
The work starts by pressuring local officials to reject these programs, Vitale said. In cities like Portland and New Orleans, “local officials have pulled out of these kinds of task forces because they felt the feds were violating some local policy, like they wouldn’t wear body cameras or they were violating restrictions on political policing and surveillance,” he added.
Indeed, task forces that “federalize” local officers and install more federal agents in local police departments are waning in popularity, according to Greene and Sager. Five cities have pulled out of such task forces in the last three years alone, citing task force officers’ lack of adherence to local police rules.
Resistance will also require a concerted effort from Congress, Vitale said. Democratic U.S. Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have announced support for the BREATHE Act, which would defund the Community Oriented Policing Services program, or COPS, that finances ORP, Operation Legend, and other federal police initiatives. The Movement for Black Lives, an abolitionist coalition organization, drafted the proposal. And in one of the most direct challenges to federal policing programs, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ted Lieu of California, Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, Deb Haaland of New Mexico, and Tlaib, have submitted an amendment as part of an upcoming House Appropriations bill to prohibit the attorney general from using funds for ORP and Operation Legend.
But these programs have been widely used. There are 160 federal task forces known as Violent Gang Safe Streets Task Forces, introduced in 1992. One example, Operation Fly Trap, which operated in Los Angeles in the early 2000s with the goal of targeting gangs and drug crime, largely failed, Vitale explained. Instead of dismantling the criminal apparatus, “[The FBI] just arrested a bunch of poor people who had drugs, based on wiretaps, and nobody had two pennies to rub together,” he said.
Detroit organizer Tawana Petty said that ORP reminds her of another similar program from 2013, called Detroit One, which also used partnerships with federal law enforcement to address violent crime in the city. Petty, whose work focuses on police surveillance, is worried that ORP may bolster an already heavily monitored city. “This program is like icing on a 10-layer cake in our city,” she said, pointing to existing cell phone tracking, facial recognition, drones and surveillance helicopters, and 700 surveillance cameras that are part of Project Green Light, a partnership between city businesses and Detroit’s police department where camera footage from businesses are monitored in real time by the police.
Organizers also worry that ORP might violate Obama-era federal consent decrees with city police departments—oversight agreements between DOJ and local police forces meant to mitigate police misconduct.
“One of the concerns is if this is in fact or intentionally an attempt to avoid the consent decree and the limits on excessive force and de-escalation and the like,” said Lewis Katz, a member of the Cleveland Community Police Commission, a citizen oversight board of the city’s police and part of the city’s efforts to comply with its consent decree. On June 3, the city unanimously passed an emergency ordinance—which prohibits public comments—allowing the city to enter into a federal contract for ORP. Katz said the commission wasn’t aware of ORP until local organizers notified them.
Consent decrees are not enforced under Trump, he said, and no new consent decrees between cities and DOJ have been implemented during this administration. “The type of policing consent decrees seek is not the type of policing that the Trump administration wants to see,” Katz said.
Vitale said that cities’ willingness to allow programs like ORP stems from their elected officials’ inability and unwillingness to handle poverty. Police violence and misconduct disproportionately affect poor communities, especially Black and Latinx communities. Six of the seven cities in the ORP program have Black populations much higher than the national average, and in five of the cities, more than one in five people live below the poverty line. Memphis and Cleveland have poverty rates of 27 percent and 35 percent respectively. In Detroit, the poverty rate is over 36 percent.
“[Politicians] have basically gotten away with ignoring profound social problems in American cities, and none of these politicians in either party has any program for urban America,” he said. “And so, they have allowed policing to fill the gap.”
In Detroit, the median income is just over $29,000, and since the COVID-19 pandemic began, almost 50 percent of people there have lost their jobs, said Petty. “The worst thing that could happen to us is to further criminalize poverty.”
Katz believes Operation Legend is largely meant to bolster the president’s re-election campaign. “It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional, and it’s scary as hell,” he said.
ORP, said Sager, “is new wine in an old bottle.” Caines agreed and added, “What troubles me is that it’s happening under Trump and there’s no real noise about it.”