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Federal Surge Into Kansas City Yields First Arrest But Scope Remains Unclear

Tony Webster
Wikimedia Commons
Kansas City is on track to record a record number of homicides this year.

What’s still not clear about 'Operation LeGend' is what exactly the federal agents will be doing, how their activities will be coordinated and how long the agents will remain in town.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said on Monday that as part of “Operation LeGend,” a 20-year-old man was charged with illegally possessing firearms. It's the first arrest made under the program that has sent federal agents into Kansas City to help curb violent crime. Even so, it remains unclear what the scope of their mission is and how long it will last.

A news release said law enforcement officers saw Monty W. Ray, who had outstanding warrants for assaulting a police officer and fleeing, as well as a probation violation, driving a stolen car. They stopped and arrested him after seeing a loaded Glock 9mm semi-automatic handgun, ammunition and a shell casing in the car.

Operation LeGend was announced on July 8 by Attorney General William Barr. In a news release, the Justice Department described it as “a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative across all federal enforcement agencies” to “fight the sudden surge of violent crime, beginning in Kansas City, MO.”

The operation takes its name from LeGend Talifero, a 4-year-old who was killed while he was sleeping in his Kansas City apartment on June 29. Although Barr’s announcement spoke of more than 100 agents being sent to Kansas City, the Justice Department has since said that 225 agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshal’s Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be taking part.

Kansas City is on a record pace for homicides this year, with 106 recorded as of today. The record was in 2017, when, excluding police shootings, there were 151 homicides.

But what’s still not clear about Operation LeGend is what exactly the federal agents will be doing, how their activities will be coordinated and how long the agents will remain in town.

At a press conference last week, Timothy Garrison, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said that “an unprecedented spike in violent crime in Kansas City deserves an unprecedented response from government authorities.”

Garrison was flanked by LeGend’s mother and grandparents and by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who emphasized that the operation “is not tanks on the streets” or a “substitute patrol force.”

But clearly at pains to distinguish the operation from the White House’s dispatch of heavily armed federal law enforcement officers to Portland, Oregon, Lucas issued this statement today:

“Kansas City will always be willing to work with any level of government interested in productive, cooperative, community-based action to make our city safer. What we made clear to the United States Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General today is we will never welcome the unilateral deployment of federal forces — particularly unidentified Homeland Security forces — meant to intimidate and detain peaceful protestors exercising their right to make their voices heard.”

The White House is threatening to send troops to other cities, including Chicago, ostensibly to protect federal property. But reports of protesters in Portland being forcibly detained by officers without insignia and driven off in unmarked civilian vans have given rise to fears that the White House is bent on imposing a form of undeclared martial law on cities like Kansas City.

Lucas was one of six mayors who signed a letter Monday calling on the Trump administration to immediately halt plans to send federal forces to American cities and to withdraw forces that have already been sent.

“The unilateral deployment of these forces into American cities is unprecedented and violates fundamental constitutional protections and tenets of federalism,” the letter stated.

The letter was also signed by the mayor of Seattle, who spearheaded the effort, and the mayors of Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Portland.

On Friday evening, hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown Kansas City to demand an end to Operation LeGend, saying it would endanger Black Kansas Citians. Several were arrested, including one who was charged with assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.

0717 protest.jpg
Bryan Boccard
Opposition to federal agents being sent to Kansas City sparked cries for racial justice and police reform over the weekend. Protesters demonstrated outside police headquarters and marched through the surrounding area Friday evening.

Garrison, the U.S. Attorney here, was out of town Tuesday and unavailable for comment. But Don Ledford, a spokesman for Garrison, said that Operation LeGend is unrelated to the recent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Garrison, as the top federal law enforcement official in the area, will oversee the federal agents, Ledford said. But he added that they’d report to their individual agencies, with FBI agents reporting to the FBI, U.S. marshals reporting to the U.S. Marshals Service and so on.

"Federal agents are working alongside local law enforcement officers in a supportive investigative role,” Ledford said. “These agents won’t be patrolling the streets. They won’t replace or usurp the authority of local officers. When they are making arrests or executing warrants, these federal agents will be clearly identified by their agency’s visible badges or insignia. The only people federal agents will be removing from the street are those they arrest in the course of their investigations of violent crimes.”

"This is a joint venture with the Kansas City Police Department, and the KCPD and the FBI are probably the lead agencies with the most officers and agents on the ground," Ledford said.

How open-ended the operation will be isn’t clear. Federal authorities declined to provide a timeline, but several officials said it was likely to last weeks rather than months. How much the agents would be able to accomplish in that brief timeframe is also unclear.

Local FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said she was unable, “for operational reasons,” to say how many agents were dispatched to Kansas City or how long they will stay.

Stephen L. Hill Jr., who was named the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and served until 2001, said he wasn’t sure how the additional federal agents would address specific ongoing problems that might be responsible for the spike in violent crime in Kansas City.

“A classic example would be how in the 1980s Kansas City was the site of a very violent war between people who were trying to control the drug trade,” Hill said. “So you could target that. Or in the ’90s, when I was there, we saw a specific relationship between the homicide rates and people who had criminal records using guns.”

“There was a specific problem and a specific solution,” Hill said. “What I don’t see here, but what I assume is going on, is that they believe that the additional people working those cases could result in the case moving more efficiently towards resolution.”

But if that’s the case, it’s news to Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, whose office handles more criminal cases in Kansas City than any other.

Mike Mansur, a spokesman for Baker, said that apart from some information it had received from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Baker’s office had not been involved in meetings involving Operation LeGend.

070120_Taliaferro Vigil_Taborda.jpg
Noah Taborda
KCUR 89.3
Rosilyn Temple of the anti-violence group Mothers in Charge speaks at a vigil for LeGend Taliaferro on July 1.

Todd Graves, who was named the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri by President George W. Bush in 2001 and served until 2007, said his office had received infusions of federal agents to combat child exploitation, although nothing like the number of agents being sent here now.

“Sometimes when they want to try something, they'll pick out three or four districts in the country, and apparently they believe that they can have an impact on unsolved murders here,” Graves said.

“We were the first on the child exploitation stuff, we were the first on some of the gun stuff,” Graves said, referring to agents sent to his office during his tenure as U.S. Attorney. “And some of it just has to do with kind of being in the center of the country — a demographic they can observe to see how it works. And I would say this is a project they’re going to evaluate to see whether it bears fruit.”

All the same, elected officials were caught flat-footed by the announcement of Operation LeGend. Lucas was not informed ahead of time nor were other local officials. Lucas said he learned about it on Twitter.

In his own Twitter post after learning of the operation, Lucas said that the operation “can be only one tool out of many, such as mental health treatment and restorative justice, in addressing violent crime.”

“As I said in my letter last week to Governor Parson that was cited by the White House this afternoon,” Lucas continued, “‘[W]e will continue to pursue a broad set of social services and other tools to address violent crime now and in the future.’ As mayor, I remain committed to working on all solutions to making our city safer and finding peace for all those impacted by violent crime.”

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