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Feds: Operation Legend will add agents to focus on Detroit gun violence

Detroit — Dozens of federal agents are being assigned to Detroit to root out violent criminals under an expansion of a Trump administration "law-and-order" initiative, although authorities insist agents here won't get involved in protests, as they have in other cities. 

Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider joined Wednesday with leaders from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and U.S. Marshals Service to detail enhancements to what is being described as Operation Legend.

Those include the creation of an ATF unit to focus on gun violence as well as a mix of new permanent and temporary agent assignments to target gun and gang violence, fugitive apprehension, illegal firearms and drug trafficking.

"The amount of violent crime plaguing our city was unacceptable," Schneider said during a news conference inside the ATF offices in Detroit. "More and more, our children are being caught in the crossfire and murdered in senseless gun violence."

The announcement comes as the state's largest city has experienced a surge in gun violence and the White House listed Detroit as one of several cities in the country where federal agents will be deployed as part of a Trump program to curb violence.

Schneider has noted homicides in Detroit are currently up 31% and shootings 53% in recent months.

"This is a flood of more resources that we haven't seen before," he said. "The violent increase here in Detroit is significant." 

Overall, 19 new permanent ATF agent assignments will be added in Detroit and 30-plus other ATF and FBI agents will be reassigned or sent in from across the country for temporary detail work.

The FBI is directing personnel already working in Detroit to the initiative. ATF is bringing in special agents from other sites nationally. Some are currently undergoing training at the federal law enforcement training center in Georgia. 

Matthew Schneider, United States Attorney, Michigan, shows the many weapons taken off the streets of Detroit and announced the expansion of Operation Legend at ATF Headquarters in Detroit on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

The project will be funded in part with a $1 million Bureau of Justice Assistance grant. Another $100,000, officials said, will be used toward "acoustic gunshot detection technology and equipment." 

The effort, Schneider noted, is an extension of Operation Relentless Pursuit, a program rolled out in Detroit last winter by U.S. Attorney General William Barr. 

ATF Special Agent in Charge James Deir said Wednesday that 15 agents are detailed here on a 90-day assignment and a handful of others will be here permanently.

The enforcement group will target gun violence in police precincts including the 6th, 2nd, 8th and the 12th, he said, adding it's a "priority mission" and "Detroit matters."

"Senseless gun violence is taking over the streets of Detroit," he said. "Whether we want to admit it or we want to stick our heads in the sand, at the end of the day, statistics do not lie."

Deir said recent spikes in violence have homicides in the 6th Precinct up 42% and nonfatal shootings 67%; in the 2nd Precinct, homicides have gone up 25% and nonfatal shootings 123%; the 8th Precinct also has seen homicides surge by 25% and nonfatal shootings climb 80%; and the 12 Precinct, he said, has a homicide rate that's up 90% and 44% more fatal shootings.

"What is happening on the streets of Detroit has to end," he added. "I think those stats speak for themselves."

The Trump administration's program, referred to as Operation Legend, builds off the crime-fighting strategy that's committing $71 million toward battling drug trafficking, street gangs and other violent crime.

Schneider said newly assigned DEA agents assigned to Michigan under Operation Legend executed a search warrant in Detroit last week and found drugs, nine guns, including assault rifles, high-capacity magazines and three body armor vests.

Schneider has said the federal help will mean more funding for Detroit and hopefully more agents to work alongside local partners. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told CNN’s Erin Burnett Wednesday that it’s “fine” for federal authorities to come in and supplement local police forces in combating crime. If the federal government’s intention is something different, that’s not going to be OK, Whitmer said.

“What we are worried about, of course, is that the federal government is going to come in and do what they did in Portland,” Whitmer said. “That is not acceptable. That is not necessary. We have seen peaceful protests in Detroit.”

Activists Tristan Taylor and Nakia Wallace during a Detroit Will Breathe picket at entrance to 1155 Brewery Park in Detroit, Michigan on July 29, 2020.

The Justice Department last week noted plans to send resources to Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland as Trump vowed federal agents would head to 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, noting "a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence."

Schneider, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and police Chief James Craig have stressed the daily rallies and marches in Detroit won't be a focus of Operation Legend.

"There are no federal troops coming to Detroit or any other area in Michigan to interfere with protesters," Schneider reiterated Wednesday. 

Deir noted ATF resources already have been in Detroit for more than a week.

"To be clear, ATF and none of my federal partners here are going to be driving around the streets in unmarked cars to somehow make contact or swoop up protesters and demonstrators," he said. "It’s not going to happen. I have no interest in that. It’s not my mission. It’s not our lane.”

At the same time Wednesday, outside the office, protesters with Detroit Will Breathe gathered to oppose Trump's initiative.  

“We don't need vigilante federal agents brutalizing the black community, because that's what they're coming to do. We need resources. So that's why we're out here,” said Lloyd Simpson, a Detroit Will Breathe organizer. 

Organizers believe bringing more police force into Detroit will cause violence.

“We vehemently oppose Operation Legend. ... The thing is is that police are causing violence in our communities," added Simpson, noting three recent police-involved shootings in the city. "What we need is we need federal dollars for support in our communities, not police."

Duggan and Craig, in a statement released Wednesday, said the additional federal agents were not prompted by the city but acknowledged a dire need to "address the unacceptable level of gun violence." 

"So long as those staff are used in the continuing effort to enforce federal laws on illegal gun trafficking and gang violence, DPD will continue its strong partnership with those agencies," the statement read. 

The city's statement notes the police department has responded to protests over the last two months by "relying on the support of the Detroit community, not by asking for intervention by the National Guard or Homeland Security."

Schneider said there are people in the community who say "we don't want federal agents in Detroit." But federal agents "have been in Detroit for decades," he said.

"Some of what we are doing is no different than what I did as an assistant U.S. attorney many years ago when my bosses were (former U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder and President Barack Obama," he said. "I'm doing the same thing now as I did then; working with the FBI, ATF and DEA to make our community safer."

Federal agencies have been providing information, training, financial assistance and manpower to local law enforcement for decades, but the practice ramped up in the 1980s and 1990s with increased narcotics use, and the War on Drugs.

However, Detroit police didn’t officially begin entering federal task forces until 1994 because former Mayor Coleman Young didn’t support them.

“During the Young years, some officers said, Detroit police sometimes had to resort to clandestine, unauthorized meetings with FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents to share information,” according to a Detroit News report  from July 5, 1994, announcing the city’s first official Detroit police-federal task force.

Detroit Board of Police Commissioners chairman Willie Bell, who was a police officer throughout Young’s administration, said the late mayor was “suspicious” of federal law enforcement agencies. Those partnerships began in Detroit as Young left office.

“Given the issues he’d had with them before, he wasn’t in favor of bringing in federal agents,” said Bell, referring to FBI investigations into Young, which were uncovered by The News in 2000. “He was strongly against it.”

Bell said during his time as an officer, he didn’t notice any hardships Detroit police endured by not augmenting their force with federal agents — but he said, “things are different today.”

“Local police are always more effective than federal agencies, because they know the community, and people can relate better to the local officers,” he said. “And without community cooperation, you’ll never have effective law enforcement.

"With the protesting and the increased violence, and all the reckless driving, DPD is stretched thin. It would be foolish not to take advantage of an offer for help.”

Bell said the police board will “carefully monitor” the federal agents working in Detroit.

Recent Detroit Police-federal initiatives include Detroit One, an effort to get illegal guns off the streets, which was launched in 2013 by former Detroit U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade and former Mayor Dave Bing, and Operation Ceasefire, also started in 2013, which aims to stop gang violence.

The collaborations do not always go smoothly.

In 2015, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Mitchell Quinn was working with a Detroit police task force when he fatally shot 20-year-old Terrance Kellom. Last year, a federal jury cleared Quinn of wrongdoing in a wrongful death lawsuit.

In February, there was a flap between Craig, the DEA and ATF after an informant, Kenyel Brown, allegedly went on a crime spree that left six people dead. Craig complained the federal agencies wouldn’t admit Brown was one of their informants. Brown shot himself in the head in an Oak Park backyard as he fled from police and later died from the injury.

Detroit Will Breathe picket at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Detroit, Michigan on July 29, 2020.

The program to assist local law enforcement to track down the most violent offenders also is targeted at Memphis, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Albuquerque, Barr said in December when he announced the initial program alongside Craig and leaders of the FBI, ATF, DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service. 

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

That funding, he added, has enabled the office to get about 400 fugitives off the streets, tackle more gun violence cases, bring more charges and get more offenders behind bars. 

Schneider said the operation began with U.S. Marshals. Officials planned to augment that with other agents from ATF, FBI and DEA. But the plan was curtailed when the pandemic hit.

cferretti@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Ariana Taylor contributed.