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U.S. AG Barr in Detroit to discuss crime-fighting initiative

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — U.S. Attorney General William Barr spent Tuesday in Detroit, getting an up-close look at Detroit's crime-fighting efforts, saying he felt the city needed help from federal agents to address increasing violence.

Barr met with Detroit police chief James Craig to discuss a recent federal-local initiative aimed at lowering violent crime in a city that this year has had a 25% increase in homicides and a 51% jump in nonfatal shootings over the same period last year.

The federal agents plan to help Detroit police arrest criminals under an expansion of a "law-and-order" push by President Donald Trump, as cities nationwide see dramatic increases in violent crime.

US Attorney General William Barr, center, stands with Detroit Police Chief James Craig, second from left, before boarding an ARMY helicopter to tour Detroit from the air during his visit to the city on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Barr said concerns expressed by some Detroiters about having more federal agents in the city are the result of "deliberate confusion being sowed by the national media," and he insisted the initiative was merely an expansion of existing federal-local task forces. 

Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider last month announced Operation Legend, an expansion of an earlier local/federal program that dispatched 19 permanent U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Explosives and Firearms agents to Detroit, and 30-plus other ATF and FBI agents from across the country for temporary detail work.

Barr said Tuesday he chose Detroit as one of the cities for Operation Legend because "we were interested in cities where recent events have created an uptick in crime, but also where there’s strong police departments with strong leadership, mayors that back the police, where we thought we could increase our efforts, and have an impact on crime."

United States Attorney General William Barr waits for an elevator to take him to his vehicle at at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters, Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

"I’m here to see how it’s working," Barr said. "It's very early on, but I wanted to see how the chief was doing; what his experience has been with it, and how we can improve things.

"I think very highly of this chief and this police department, so my impression is really good," he said. "I spent the morning with the chief and his senior leadership hearing about it. I think they’ve made excellent progress, and I think we’re contributing to that."

After Barr and Craig met Tuesday morning at Public Safety Headquarters, they joined Schneider at ATF headquarters, where they took a ride over the city in a U.S. Army UH72 Lakota helicopter.

When asked the reason for the helicopter trip, Craig said it was to tour the city "and for something else I can't tell you about." When an ATF agent briefed the three officials on what would happen during the helicopter ride, reporters were asked to move out of earshot.

After the helicopter trip, Schneider said he wasn't at liberty to release details about the mission.

"It was a law enforcement matter (involving the operation), which the Attorney General was able to observe; that's all I can say about it," Schneider said. 

Schneider said Barr was briefed on the operation's efforts, which he said are "already working."

"We've seized assault rifles with high-capacity magazines, body armor, cocaine, heroin, meth and all kinds of other firearms, so already it's a success," Schneider said.

Some Detroiters have expressed fears that the initiative would trigger a deployment of the National Guard, as has happened in cities where protests turned violent, but Barr insisted Tuesday that Operation Legend would not involve protests.

"There's a basic distinction between responding to civil unrest and demonstrations that get violent, and traditional crime-fighting activities," Barr said. "What we're talking about here are traditional crime-fighting activities.

"The federal government has been involved in going after drugs, gangs and guns for decades ... and the way we've been doing it for the last 30 years is through joint task forces, where we have federal officers working shoulder-to-shoulder with the local police ... all we're talking about here is increasing those efforts," Barr said.

Tristan Taylor, an organizer with the protest group Detroit Will Breathe, has repeatedly expressed concern about the increased federal presence in the city.

“We need to say in a forceful way, federal agents out of Detroit now,” Taylor said at a recent protest downtown. 

The Michigan Democratic Party issued a statement Tuesday criticizing Barr's visit.

“If Donald Trump and Bill Barr want to hear from people hurt by their toxic agenda, they should watch tonight’s DNC Convention," the statement said. "While Donald Trump gives lip service to the cause of criminal justice reform, he has failed to deliver and has tried to cut funding to hire more police officers.

"This event is nothing more than a desperate attempt to distract from his failures and from a successful DNC Convention that is highlighting Trump’s destructive record and showing why voters should choose Joe Biden in November," the statement said. 

But westside resident Alberta Caldwell, 72, whose husband Tommie Lee Caldwell was killed in a 2011 home invasion, said she thought adding more federal agents is a “great idea.”

“Maybe things will get better,” she said. “There’s too much crime now. I don’t go anywhere; you can’t walk anywhere, and you can hardly ride down the street. There’s more people working for the devil than the Lord, so I think (federal agents) will help. Some people don’t like it, but I don't know why."

Schneider said he doesn't understand why people don't want extra law enforcement officers in Detroit.

"To anyone who says they don't want this federal help, I have to ask them: do you want these guns on your streets, and in your neighborhood? I did this back when I was an assistant U.S. Attorney and my boss was President Barack Obama; we've been working with state and local partners for decades," Schneider said. "The difference is, we're doing more of it, and it's more effective."

Under the initiative, a new ATF unit was rolled out that focuses on gun violence as well as a mix of permanent and temporary agent assignments to target gun and gang violence, fugitive apprehension, illegal firearms and drug trafficking.

Craig reiterated Operation Legend is not a new concept. 

"This was just a transition from Operation Relentless Pursuit, so those resources were already on the ground; this just added more (agents)," Craig said. "The AG and I had a very direct conversation about the evolution of how we fight crime here."