Milwaukee is one of five cities that will see a surge in federal resources to address violent crime in coming weeks, under new orders from President Donald Trump.
The influx of federal officers will coincide with Milwaukee hosting a scaled-back, mostly virtual Democratic National Convention and ongoing protests against police brutality and racism.
The effort is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Operation Legend, which recently brought more than 200 federal officers into Kansas City after a 4-year-old boy was shot and killed.
The operation will expand into Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, next and then continue into Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee over the next three weeks, Trump said Wednesday.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had suggested such federal intervention was on its way in a weekend TV interview, prompting Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to send a letter opposing such intervention citing recent reports from Portland, Oregon, where federal officers in unmarked vehicles have grabbed protesters off the street without any record of their detention.
“This is a vital moment in history as folks across the country confront the structural racism that has created inequalities for far too long,” Evers wrote in a letter dated Wednesday. “This is not a moment to double down and unnecessarily increase police presence, especially without invitation.”
It’s fairly routine for the federal government to announce flashy initiatives to curb gun violence and promise the help of federal prosecutors, U.S. marshals and agents from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
But state and local officials are wary of what they see as a political move by the Trump administration and outright alarmed by what they’ve seen federal agents do in other cities, including Portland.
In Oregon, the state attorney general has gone to court to get a restraining order against federal agents, arguing they have arrested protesters without probable cause and used excessive force — allegations federal officials have disputed.
What’s more: Details are scarce or conflicting on what exactly federal deployments in these cities will look like.
On Monday, the Chicago Tribune reported the Trump administration was crafting plans to send 150 federal agents to the Midwest’s largest city. On Wednesday, Trump said more than 300 federal officers will be sent to that city.
So far, it’s unclear how many federal agents would be deployed to Milwaukee, which — like other cities around the country — has seen a surging homicide rate this year with homicides starting to rise in April before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis prompted protests in Milwaukee and across the country.
By the midpoint of this year, Milwaukee had 86 homicide victims — double the number of victims at the same time in 2019. At that time, more than one-third of homicides in the city stemmed from family and domestic violence.
On Tuesday night, a 2-year-old girl was shot and killed in her home. So far, police have not released further details about the case, but a woman has been arrested and officers are searching for other possible people involved.
On Thursday, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said Operation Legend is a rebranding of an existing initiative, Operation Relentless Pursuit, which was announced late last year.
Chisholm said he sought, and received, assurances from Matthew D. Krueger, U.S. attorney for Wisconsin’s Eastern District, that “these resources are not going to be directed at peaceful protesters or any protesters, period.”
“We’re all going to watch that very closely and make sure the assets are going toward what they are supposed to, which is addressing our surge in violent crime,” Chisholm said.
In a statement Thursday, Milwaukee police officials indicated they were aware of the White House news release about Operation Legend coming to Milwaukee.
“At this time MPD is confirming this information. Additional information will be provided once available,” the department said.
Later Thursday night, the department released a statement confirming Operation Relentless Pursuit had been renamed and the focus remained “to address violent crime, drug trafficking and the illegal use of firearms.”
The police department drew a sharp distinction between the initiative and federal efforts in other cities targeting protests.
“The Milwaukee Police Department is aware of the deployment of federal agents to other cities for the purpose of providing support to those local law enforcement agencies as they address their civil unrest,” the statement read. “The Milwaukee Police Department respectfully declines the deployment of federal agents in Milwaukee for this purpose.”
‘Why are you coming?’
Evers and Milwaukee officials have said they were not consulted about the plan and did not know of it until Meadows’ interview with Maria Bartiromo on the Fox News program “Sunday Morning Futures.”
“Given the events that have taken place in Portland over the last few nights, I am extremely concerned that President Trump is looking for opportunities to create more political division in cities across the nation. Federal agents are not welcome here for that purpose,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said. “If the federal presence is to truly cooperate with local law enforcement, then it is imperative the limits of their activities are clearly delineated and monitored.”
Milwaukee Common Council President Cavalier Johnson raised concerns about the move, saying he is concerned it would “cause a deeper divide and heightened conflict.”
Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley said his first question would be, “Why are you coming?” He says local officials have not asked for them to come, and that the protests here have been peaceful. He said their arrival would be “harmful.”
State Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, suggested the move was about politics, not public safety.
“I think that that plan is completely and totally unnecessary. I mean, Milwaukee has shown for the most part that our protests have been nonviolent,” she said. “For him to send federal troops, the only purpose that serves is to agitate peaceful protesters.”
She added, “As we get closer and closer to the election, I think President Trump operates from a place of fear. There are just no words to describe the levels that he would go to to stay in power. It makes absolutely no sense.”
GOP Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, of Kaukauna, called it “idiotic” for Evers to turn down federal help as homicides in Milwaukee “are skyrocketing” — but he also criticized the federal government for its actions.
“It’s an overreach of fed power to send fed agents in w/o a specific request from the state,” Steineke tweeted.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democrat from Milwaukee, called the plan “ridiculous.”
“I don’t know how this helps the situation at all,” he said, adding that Trump’s approach will not prevent violence.
“I don’t know if the President wants the same kind of chaos that’s going on in Portland to happen in more cities across America. They’re already using it to campaign,” he said, adding: “They’re not invited, nor are they welcome.”
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul said the deployment was a “fascist” move.
“I don’t use the phrase ‘fascist tactics’ lightly,” he said. “But there is no more accurate way to describe this administration’s repeated resort to and incitement of racism, xenophobia, and violence.” he said.
In announcing the federal surge Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr pointed to Kansas City as a successful example, saying 200 arrests had been made within two weeks as part of Operation Legend.
But after local officials disputed that number, Justice Department officials later corrected Barr’s statements and said the 200 arrests included some dating back to December 2019 and both state and FBI arrests in joint operations, the Kansas City Star reported.
In total, the Justice Department expects to provide more than $61 million for the hiring of new police officers and permanently reassign about 200 federal agents and deputy marshals to Operation Legend cities, according to the White House.