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Federal Agents Surging Into Kansas City Make Arrests And Stir Controversy

Frank Morris
Caskets on display at Serenity Funeral Home in Kansas City, where many of the city's homicide victims are memorialized.

The Trump Administration has sent about 200 additional federal law enforcement agents to Kansas City. It's a controversial operation, but those involved want to make something clear: "This is not Portland".

The Trump administration has sent some 200 federal agents to Kansas City as part of an initiative to quell violent crime. The rollout of the operation has been marred by misinformation, and some local activists say it’s wrong-headed at best, but others applaud the added help from Washington to fight a desperate homicide problem.

With Trump dispatching heavily armed men in camo and body armor to Portland and other cities, there has been keen interest in what’s been characterized as a surge of federal agents to Kansas City. The operation here is fraught politically, but those involved say it’s important to clarify what Operation LeGend is – and what it is not.

“This is not Portland,” says Tim Garrison, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. “This has nothing to do with anybody's exercise of their rights to protest. We are simply here to address the unprecedented level of violence that is exemplified by the senseless and tragic killing of LeGend Taliferro.”

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Frank Morris
The Citadel Appartments where LeGend Taliferro was killed by a bullet fired from outside while he slept in his bedroom.

Four-year-old LeGend Taliferro was killed by a bullet fired from outside while he slept in his bedroom early on the morning of June 29. Police believe the apartment was targeted, although no arrests have been made in the case.

On July 8, the White House announced Operation LeGend, the influx of some 200 federal law enforcement agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and other agencies into Kansas City. The announcement came as a surprise to Garrison – the top federal law enforcement official here.

Days before the announcement, Garrison’s office had contacted the mayor’s office, the Kansas City Police Department and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to outline the operation and secure their approval. Garrison says support was critical to launching the initiative in Kansas City. But the announcement itself came before anyone here was expecting it.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas maintained that he was blindsided by the White House announcement of Operation LeGend, and several news organizations, including NPR, led their coverage of the operation with Lucas’ statement to that effect. But Lucas later was forced to walk back his statement after the Kansas City Star dug up a July 7 letter from his office to Garrison pledging support for the operation.

Kansas City has logged 107 homicides so far this year. That’s more than many entire previous years, and on pace to break the city’s homicide record of 151 in 2017. About three-quarters of the homicide victims this year have been Black.

In a news conference touting Operation LeGend and its expansion to Chicago and Albuquerque, Trump this week tied crime in those cities to protests urging defunding of police departments in the wake of social justice demonstrations prompted by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He pinned the blame for the sharp uptick in homicides on Democratic lawmakers.

Lucas, however, says that the murder rate in Kansas City had begun to climb long before the protests.

“To suggest otherwise is to try to not just dog whistle but, frankly, dog bark about racial politics,” Lucas said on the steps of City Hall last week. “It's to try to divide our community and our country. It's totally unnecessary and it doesn't help us solve a single violent crime incident.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr last week falsely claimed agents assigned to Operation LeGend had already made 200 arrests in Kansas City. Garrison, who was in the room with Barr, says it triggered a hurried confab between himself, FBI, and administration officials. At the time, federal agents had actually made exactly one publicly known arrest related to the operation.

Barr may have been conflating Operation LeGend with a similarly focused initiative from last December, Operation Relentless Pursuit. That operation involved similar objectives and similar agencies. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced Operation Relentless Pursuit to wind down early. Garrison says Operation LeGend is something of a reboot, which has since resulted in more than a dozen arrests.

Activist Sara Shaw says one of those arrests, the apprehension of Jonta Johnson last Thursday, demonstrates how enhanced law enforcement can traumatize people in the Black community.

“Cassidy Jordan – she's 27 and has a 7-year- old daughter – is an example of a collateral consequence,” Shaw says. “Her child's father was arrested, not for murder, but for gun and drug charges. And her 7-year-old daughter had federal agents pointing a gun at her and her mother.”

Shaw compares Operation LeGend to a military occupation. And she says it’s doomed to failure because only better schools and job opportunities will halt the cycle of violence.

Other community members, though, welcome the additional federal presence.

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Frank Morris
Da-Nearle Clarke, an apprentice funeral director at Serenity Funeral Home at Bannister and Troost, knows the families of many of the murder victims memorialized here.

“I support Operation LeGend 100%,” says Da-Nearle Clarke, an apprentice funeral director at Serenity Funeral Home at Bannister and Troost. “There’s a whole lot of homicides happening now, and it needs to stop.”

Clarke says this as he stands in an enormous room filled with hundreds of meticulously-spaced purple chairs and an open casket up front. It’s the room where LeGend Taliferro was memorialized.

“It was a whole lot of hurt in this room that day,” Clarke says. “And I myself felt it. A lot of our community, people in the community felt it. They feel it still.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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