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White House: Federal officers coming to Detroit to battle violent crime

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The White House plans to deploy federal agents to Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee in the coming weeks as part of the Trump administration's "law-and-order" intervention initiative to combat rising crime.

 The White House summary refers to a new initiative targeting violent crime in seven cities called Operation Relentless Pursuit that was announced last winter in Detroit by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, said Detroit police Chief James Craig. 

The effort is committing $71 million toward battling drug trafficking, street gangs and other violent crime in areas including Detroit, which has the highest rate per capita in the country.

Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said Thursday he expects additional federal help will be on the way within the week. It will include more funding and hopefully more agents to work alongside local partners, Schneider said. But the specifics haven't been worked out yet, he said. 

"I am actively working with Washington, D.C., and have been for several days to bring more federal resources and more federal law enforcement agents to Michigan," Schneider said. "Let me be clear right away about what this is not about; this has nothing to do with protesters or freedom of speech. This has everything to do with stopping murders, shootings and violent crime in Detroit."

The Justice Department's expansion plans came as Trump announced Wednesday he would send federal agents into Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to aid local law enforcement amid ongoing protests in the wake of the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“In recent weeks there has been a radical movement to defend, dismantle and dissolve our police department,” Trump said at a Wednesday White House event, blaming the movement for “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.”

President Donald Trump speaks during a news briefing Thursday at the White House
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks about the protests that occurred in the city over the weekend.

Trump didn't specifically mention Detroit during his briefing, but the White House listed the city as part of an official event summary posted on its website late Wednesday. 

"Over the next 3 weeks, the Justice Department plans to further expand the initiative into Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee," the summary notes. 

Schneider said "there's a good reason for this" and that crime is "out of control."

He noted that homicides in Detroit are up 31% and shootings 51% in recent months.

"It's really demoralizing if you live in the neighborhood that's plagued by violence," Schneider said. "No one is asking about the victims of crime. They want some federal resources so we can arrest those gang members and bring justice to those families."

After the December announcement, the city began to get assistance from the federal government around April to help with gun and gang violence, Chief Craig said. He could not immediately cite specific figures for resources on the ground to assist with crime fighting here. 

"Given the recent uptick some of these cities are experiencing, including ours in terms of violence, they wanted to enhance what was already in place (with Operation Relentless Pursuit)," Craig said. 

The announcement of an impeding federal presence has sparked outcry from activists in the city.

During a protest Thursday that brought about 100 people to the Cody Medicine and Community Health Academy on the city’s west side, several speakers denounced the decision. Some of the attendees also held signs reading “We refuse secret federal police in any city!”

“The feds need to stay out of Detroit, they need to stay out of the cities,” Cindy Luiz, a Michigan-based volunteer with the group Refuse Fascism, told the crowd. “We refuse fascist secret people. We refuse military attacks on the Black people or anybody else and we stand with everybody who is opposing that, like the people in Portland and all over the country and all over the world, for that matter.”

David Douglass, an organizer with By Any Means Necessary, said Trump "is so weak right now. He is so afraid of the movement that started in Minneapolis and has spread all across the country. He knows he has to send troops to Detroit because we’ve been in the streets day after day."

Jae Bass, who is part of the activist group Detroit Will Breathe, vowed demonstrators would not be deterred if faced with federal officials.

"We’re going to stand shoulder to shoulder and we're going to be strong," he said. 

The notice comes as Detroit protesters have said this week that they have seen an unmarked federal law enforcement car around their demonstrations. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan reiterated Thursday that he and Craig have had multiple conversations with federal officials and are "comfortable now that there will not be Homeland Security officers coming to Detroit."

"There is no justification to deal with protesters with homeland security officers," the mayor told reporters following an unrelated news conference.

Operation Relentless Pursuit is targeted at Memphis, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Albuquerque, Barr said in December when he unveiled the program alongside Craig and leaders of the FBI, ATF, DEA and U.S. Marshals Service. 

Barr indicated during the Wednesday news event that "we will be adding cities in the weeks ahead" beyond Chicago and Albuquerque.

The Trump administration initiative calls upon federal partners to assist local law enforcement in Detroit and the other identified cities, establishing new task forces to track down the most violent offenders, officials said Wednesday. 

Detroit has shared a portion of $10 million that went out to several cities, Schneider said.

The money has enabled his office to tackle more gun violence cases, bring more charges and get more offenders behind bars, he said Thursday, adding that his office is compiling data and could not cite specific figures. 

He declined to say how many agents so far have joined local law enforcement efforts, saying it's "difficult for us to discuss" due to the sensitive nature of the enforcement.

On Wednesday, the mayor said sending in agents to police protests would be "unacceptable."

“Certainly, the chief and I made it very clear that sending in folks from the Department of Homeland Security to deal with protesters, we didn’t even accept the National Guard at the height of the protest,” he said Wednesday. “We made a decision early on that the bond between the Detroit Police Department and this community was strong enough, that we could handle the protests ourselves.”

Detroit has experienced a few tense encounters during its protests when officers deployed tear gas and rubber bullets after law enforcement officers said they were targeted with items such as railroad spikes, fireworks and rocks.

But the mayor has said the city has been spared from the looting and fires that some other parts of the country have endured and residents are standing up, he said, to say 'you are not going to tear up our town.'"

“That’s been our strategy and we’re going to stick with that strategy," Duggan said.

In recent days, Trump sent federal forces into cities including Kansas City, Missouri and Portland, where early Monday morning they used tear gas to disperse protesters who had approached a federal court house and then set a fire outside the courthouse.

In Portland, the use of federal law enforcement and Department of Homeland Security staff has spurred pushback and lawsuits questioning the federal government's authority to use broad policing powers.

During a Thursday briefing, Trump said Homeland Security and federal law enforcement have done a "fantastic job" to rein in the "radical left mob" in Portland.

He also referenced the "senseless violence that you see in Chicago, New York and Detroit ... where so many people are shot and so many people are killed."

"People elected me to help and to protect," Trump added. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, both Democrats, responded Monday in a joint statement by criticizing Trump's efforts to "suppress the voices of those he doesn't agree with" as "un-American." 

Whitmer said federal troops are not needed in Michigan. 

"Quite frankly, the president doesn't know the first thing about Detroit," she said. "If he did, he would know that for nearly two months now, Detroiters have gathered to peacefully protest the systemic racism and discrimination that Black Americans face every day."

Whitmer's office has "no further updates to share," spokeswoman Chelsea Lewis said Thursday.

Trump is using his authority "as a cudgel to punish those who use their constitutionally guaranteed rights to express views he disagrees with," Nessel said.

Schneider said he's "absolutely supportive" of what Trump is doing for Detroit and struck back against the notion that a federal surge will be bad for the city.

"If people in the state realized what the help was for and realized it's not what is being explained by some of our leaders, then they would support it as well," he said. "I am rolling out the red carpet for them. This is my way of responding to the defund-the-police movement. I'm working very hard to bring extra money to police and lock up people who pull the triggers."

The Justice Department usually sends agents under its own umbrella, like agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or the Drug Enforcement Agency. But this surge effort will include at least 100 Department of Homeland Security Investigations officers working in the region who generally conduct drug trafficking and child exploitation investigations.

Duggan said Detroit would welcome support from the federal government if it means adding more extra gun prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office and more efforts by ATF to get illegal guns off the street.

cferretti@detroitnews.com 

Staff Writer Mark Hicks and Associated Press contributed