There has been significant outcry over Donald Trump’s decision to deploy federal law enforcement to Portland to quell protests there. Now, Trump has announced that he is ramping up Operation Legend, which will send hundreds of federal law enforcement officers to Chicago, Kansas City, Albuquerque, and possibly other major cities, including New York and Philadelphia, to deal with increases in shootings. These initiatives have spurred some protest from officials in Portland and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, as well as calls from members of Congress to significantly curtail such interventions. What has been left out of these conversations is the Trump administration’s existing plan to flood seven cities with additional federal and local police as part of Operation Relentless Pursuit (ORP).
On May 12, the Justice Department began releasing funds to support ORP. Cooked up by Attorney General William Barr in 2019, OPR is intended to be the Trump administration’s signature crime initiative going into the November election. It calls for the creation of federal-local task forces to combat violence and drugs. The focus is on building federal cases against drug cartels and violent gangs. It has already distributed $61 million in funding for local police in Baltimore, Albuquerque, Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, Memphis, and Milwaukee. In each case, local Democratic mayors have authorized their police departments to work with federal law enforcement, including the DEA, ATF, FBI, and US Marshals, to conduct investigations and apprehend suspects in cooperation with the local US Attorney’s office.
These types of task forces are not new and have a track record of abusive tactics that lead to more criminalization, with little to show in the way of reductions in crime. In 2001, a similar initiative, dubbed Operation Fly Trap, targeted gangs and drug dealers in Los Angeles. After almost two years and the involvement of dozens of law enforcement entities, dozens of arrests were made utilizing wire taps and testimony coerced by the threat of decades-long prison sentences. Criminologist Susan A. Philips found that the operation had mostly targeted low-level drug dealers, none of whom were actual gang members. In the process, these arrests significantly destabilized families and did nothing to interrupt the availability of drugs in the community.
In April of 2016, as part of Operation Crew Cut, the NYPD, in conjunction with numerous federal agencies, arrested 120 young people in the Bronx who were accused of being “the worst of the worst” criminals in the city. US Attorney Preet Bharara oversaw the use of far-reaching RICO conspiracy charges against the defendants, claiming that they were all guilty of serious violence because they were members of gangs that functioned as a “criminal enterprise.” Therefore, any violence by anyone in the gang was in furtherance of the gang’s interests, making each member legally culpable. An analysis of the cases by law professor Babe Howell found that in fact only half of the defendants were ever accused of being in a gang, over 90 percent were so poor they qualified for a public defender, and ultimately half the defendants were only charged with marijuana-related offenses.
Among the law enforcement entities to be included in ORP is the US Marshal’s office, which has been implicated in misconduct in the suppression of the protests in Portland. Marshals clad in full camouflage combat gear fired a “less than lethal” munition directly at the face of a protester, causing serious injury; have brandished firearms at demonstrators; and have rounded up protesters without probable cause while refusing to identify themselves, state where people are being taken, or even what agency they work for. This latter tactic of detain-and-release is clearly unconstitutional and smacks of the politically motivated “disappearances” seen in Latin American dictatorships.
It is clear why the Trump administration initiated ORP and Operation Legend. It wants to use a tough-on-crime agenda to define the problems of urban America as stemming from “drug cartels,” “gang bangers,” and “antifa,” three of Trump’s favorite bogeymen. By doing so, Trump deflects any federal responsibility for the conditions of these cities. The failure of federal policies to provide basic housing, economic development, health care, family supports, or social services are irrelevant when the problem is portrayed as one of immorality and criminality that will respond only to increasingly intensive and invasive policing and mass incarceration.
The bigger question is why big-city Democratic mayors are embracing Trump’s tough-on-crime reelection strategy. Each of these cities applied to be part of ORP; the Justice Department did not unilaterally impose it on them. But by embracing this initiative, these mayors are buying into the rhetorical strategy that Trump is pushing, which is that only more policing can solve the problems these big cities face.
Too often, local mayors have given up on the possibility of really dealing with long-standing problems of chronic joblessness, failed schools, inadequate housing, and the absence of decent medical care in their poorest communities and have instead focused on the resulting disorder and violence as issues to be dealt with through criminalization. And the federal government, which once provided significant resources to help address these issues, now targets most of its funding toward policing and, by extension, criminalization. As a result, mayors too often turn to federal law enforcement as a possible savior.
One of the problems with embracing federal police is their almost total lack of local or even federal accountability. Cities like Albuquerque, Atlanta, St. Paul, San Francisco, and Portland have all pulled out of federal-local task forces in the past because federal agents have violated local rules regarding racial profiling, use-of-force policies, and requirements to wear body cameras.
The National Network for Justice has been coordinating local resistance to ORP. It recently held a national webinar featuring local activists from the ORP-targeted cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, and Memphis. Organizing is also underway in Detroit and Albuquerque. These local organizers want more federal resources for youth employment, community-based violence reduction programs, and better schools, not more money for local police and more federal agents rounding up young people in their communities.
“Operation Relentless Pursuit will have a devastating effect in Detroit,” local organizer Tawana Petty told me. “We do have a high-crime situation, but we also have an underserved population that has suffered severe disinvestment for decades. Almost 50 percent of our workers have lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic; people whose median income was under $29,000 before Covid-19. Our community is already over-policed, over-profiled, and over-surveilled. We need to move resources into medical care, into jobs, into clean water and food for our families.”
On July 15, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued a letter signed by over 75 civil rights organizations calling on Congress to block funding for ORP.
“For decades, the federal government has dumped resources into a criminal-legal system that has caused untold harm to Black and other communities,” said Thea Sebastian, Policy Counsel for Civil Rights Corps. “Now, even as people nationwide are protesting police violence and our misplaced priorities, the Department of Justice is making the same mistake that helped lead us here: investing heavily in police and prosecutors rather than the non-carceral, community-led programs that genuinely keep neighborhoods safe.”
The Breath Act drafted by Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, in conjunction with the Movement for Black Lives, calls for a defunding of the Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) office, which administers ORP, and the People’s Coalition for Safety and Freedom has also initiated a national effort to defund the COPS office, pointing out its role in overseeing ORP as well as numerous other efforts to flood cities with more police.
The Trump administration, desperate to divert attention from its abject failure of urban policy, thinks the road to reelection is paved with more policing and mass incarceration. The question remains, why are local Democrats supporting their efforts?