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US Attorney General Says Crime-Fighting Effort Named After Kansas City Child Is ‘Heart’ of Government’s Response to Violence

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Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr is flanked by the parents of LeGend Taliferro, Raphael, left, and Charron, as he addresses the media Wednesday at the Charles Evans Whittaker Courthouse. Barr was in Kansas City to update the progress of Operation LeGend.

A coalition of civil rights organizations are opposed to the operation, with many saying it's an “overreach” that doesn’t address the root causes of violence.

Operation LeGend, a federal initiative that began in Kansas City to address violent crime, has resulted in about 1,500 arrests nationally, according to U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

Barr announced the milestone at a press conference in Kansas City Wednesday, flanked by the FBI deputy director, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith and U.S. attorneys from eight states.

The arrests include 90 people suspected of homicide — 18 in Kansas City. The operation has also resulted in the seizure of over 70 illegal firearms locally, according to Barr. He said the federal government is charging about 200 people with federal crimes.

“Operation LeGend is the heart of the federal government's response to this upturn in violent crime,” Barr said. “Its mission is to save lives, solve crimes, and take violent offenders off the streets before they can claim more victims.”

The White House unveiled the operation on July 8, naming it after four-year-old LeGend Taliferro, a Kansas City boy who was killed in late June while sleeping in his apartment. His parents joined Barr at the press conference Wednesday. The operation is now in nine cities, including Chicago and Albuquerque.

The federal initiative was met with mixed reaction in Kansas City and across the country, with some Democrats criticizing Barr’s effort as fueled by election-year politics. Some, like KC Mothers in Charge, an organization that supports family members dealing with the loss of a loved one to violence, welcomed the additional help.

In an interview with KCUR, Barr said his “experience” led him to the conclusion that calls to defund the police and the efforts to “demonize police” were a factor in the uptick in violent crime. Barr did not give any specific examples of people arrested as part of Operation LeGend that were motivated by this.

“The police, obviously, if they don't feel they have the backing of the political officials in a city have a tendency not to take aggressive steps that they might otherwise take,” Barr said, adding later, “I doubt it happens in Kansas City because I think that the police here feel they have the backing they need to do the job.”

Stacy Shaw, a Kansas City attorney who has led a number of protests in Kansas City, called Barr’s claim that criticism of police caused crime “absolutely ridiculous.”

"This is just more political gamesmanship, lack of accountability, no one wanting to take true responsibility for the true elements that contribute to a criminalized community,” Shaw said. “And this is just another overreach of the federal government into state government and into our communities."

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Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
U.S. Attorneys General from eight states, along with the parents of LeGend Talifero, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith and FBI officials join U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr at a press conference Wednesday at the Charles Evans Whittaker Courthouse in Kansas City.

A coalition of civil rights organizations — including the NAACP, the Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Black Rainbow — called on the Kansas City mayor to reject the operation. In a letter sent to Mayor Quinton Lucas in late July, the groups said more policing wasn’t the solution, and instead called for investment in jobs, housing and health care.

The groups also pointed to the federal government’s response in Portland — which included using unmarked vehicles to detain protesters. Officials have stressed that Operation LeGend is different than the government’s response in Oregon.

Barr told KCUR the federal government’s actions in Portland didn’t create mistrust for future operations because the actions were “misrepresented by the press.”

“I find over the years in many of the people who challenge these crime-fighting efforts in the inner city are not people who have to live with the consequences of it,” Barr said. “...They're not really members of the affected community and they can, you know, signal their virtue and posture and take these absurd positions that will lead to a death in the inner city.”

Kansas City has seen more than 120 homicides this year, according to the Kansas City Police Department. That’s about 30 more killings than the same time last year. Smith said the additional federal help is “absolutely making a difference” in addressing unsolved homicides.

A 22-year-old man has been arrested in the fatal shooting of 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, a death that sparked indignation and grief in a city that’s seen more than 120 homicides this year.

Ryson Ellis, 22, was charged last week in LeGend's death. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker charged Ellis with second-degree murder, unlawful use of a weapon and two counts of armed criminal action.

KCUR news intern Jodi Fortino contributed to this report.

Aviva Okeson-Haberman was the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3.
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