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Former Police Chief Ralph Godbee discusses Operation Legend and policing Detroit.

The federal government announced last week a plan to put more federal agents in Detroit to help fight gangs, criminal enterprises and gun violence. The announcement came just a week after Mayor Mike Duggan and Police Chief James Craig said they hadn’t been contacted by federal agencies and that they don’t believe federal assistance is necessary. 

Operation Legend will add special agents from the ATF and FBI, about $1 million in Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance funds, and about $100,000 in Joint Law Enforcement Operations grants for acoustic gunshot detection technology. Fifty-six new agents and 15 Detroit police officers will be added to the ranks.

Homicides in the city are up 31 percent from this time last year and non-fatal shootings have risen 53 percent, but some Detroiters say this federal involvement in law enforcement signals something bigger. 

Operation Legend comes just eight months after U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced the launch of Operation Relentless Pursuit, which aimed to increase federal law enforcement resources in some cities with violent crime levels far above the national average — Detroit being one of them. This effort included $3.9 million to fight gangs and gun violence in Wayne County. 

Detroit is a city with severe unemployment numbers, more than 12,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 1,500 confirmed deaths. The city had issues of school closures, poor infrastructure and water shut-offs well before the pandemic started this year.

Yet, the federal government is sending aid to law enforcement agencies and police departments to help curb gun violence. Protesters say these initiatives undermine Black life and contribute to overpolicing and mass incarceration. This help contributes to the problem and is the reason why Detroiters have protested daily, locals say.

Protesters march on Gratiot outside of the ATF offices in Detroit (Photo by Bryce Huffman)

Nakia Wallace, co-founder of Detroit Will Breathe, was one of the several dozens of people marching outside the ATF offices on Gratiot following the announcement of Operation Legend last week. Wallace finds it odd that the government is spending more than $4 million on law enforcement.  

“So they would rather put those funds towards policing instead of towards community support, instead of towards education, instead of towards health care, instead of towards helping people find jobs,” Wallace asks. “It’s very clear that this is a continuation of systematic oppression and racism and an attack on Black and Brown communities.”

Wallace isn’t the only community activist who is troubled by the idea of bringing in more federal agents to help solve gun violence. Yusef Bunchy Shakur, a community activist and author who lived in the violent culture these federal agents are in Detroit to combat, says “it’s frightening.”

“It’s more terror that will occur mentally and emotionally here,” Shakur said. He points to the irony of the initiative being named after a Black child, LeGend Taliferro, who was shot and killed in Kansas City in late June.

“This is named after a Black child who was tragically killed in Kansas City, but then you think about the many tragedies of Black babies being killed by police and nowhere do [federal officials] respond in this manner,” he said. 

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said during last week’s news conference that COVID-related releases of inmates have been responsible for some of the violence throughout the city. 

“We are absolutely seeing across the country where people have been released by judges into the community because of coronavirus are now back in the community committing violent crimes,” Schneider said. 

Schneider and other officials at the news conference didn’t provide statistics to back up this claim. 

Justice advocates have taken issue with this position and recent reports refute Schneider’s statement. 

Bridget McCormack, Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and Co-Chair of the Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, says years of data reviewed by the task force suggest that reducing jail populations wouldn’t impact violent crime.

Jeffrey Edison of the National Conference of Black Lawyers Michigan Chapter also questioned a “direct correlation” between recent jail releases and an uptick in gun violence.

Containing the virus in jails has been difficult for officials. Michigan has the fifth-highest rate of infection in its prisons, according to data collected by the Marshall Project. In April, incarcerated people sued the Michigan Department of Corrections for violating their eighth amendment rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment.

“It’s minimizing the seriousness of the impact of COVID on persons in confinement. It’s as if it wasn’t serious or a consideration of potential fatal consequences by being locked up, in close confinement, in physical conditions that are already draconian,” Edison said. 

Edison also responded to the notion of “senseless violence” that was echoed by several agents at the press conference. 

More context is required to understand violence in Detroit, a city that mostly lacks “adequate education, housing and health care,” Edison said.  

“People aren’t working. They aren’t employed, they don’t have access to health care and are living from month to month and day to day. Often, a host of issues are impacting the psychological well being of folks. To just say, simplistically, this guy felt disrespected and is going to react by shooting them or some other form of violence, that doesn’t get to what is happening out here,” said Edison. “It’s so tragic. There is what people consider to be senseless violence but there is no effort to peel back the layers and layers of socialization that has happened over decades and generations in terms of people being oppressed. It is not a matter of lip service.” 

Amanda Alexander, executive director of the Detroit Justice Center, said Detroit needs “direct economic relief” and expanded funding for programs that help young people who have experienced trauma. DLive is a “model for community-based care survivors of gun violence,” Alexander said. 

“At a time when so many folks are still out of work, and everyone’s mental and emotional stability are fraught from both the pandemic and the massive uptick in police violence against protesters in cities across the country, bringing more police into Detroit is a terrible idea,” Alexander wrote to BridgeDetroit.  

“Operation Legend is only going to exacerbate tensions between Detroiters and police, in the same way that ‘Operation Restore Order’ did several years ago with militarized raids across the city,” she said.

Dan Korobkin, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, like many Detroiters, fears that federal agents may use this operation as an excuse to unlawfully detain people protesting against police brutality, like what happened in Portland, Oregon, recently

“A federal judge there recently reaffirmed what we already know: Federal officers cannot come into our cities and arrest people who are exercising their First Amendment right to protest and dissent. In Detroit, Black residents already suffer the brunt of racist over-policing in their communities. Enough is enough,” Korobkin said. 

What do you think about the city’s current issue with gun violence? Do you think Operation Legend is something Detroiters should welcome or fight against? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter @BridgeDet313 and make sure to subscribe for more content!

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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