Members of the Chicago Police Department were invited but declined to join federal law enforcement to announce more than 500 arrests in the city under "Operation Legend" in recent weeks, federal authorities said Wednesday.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr was in Chicago to make the announcement Wednesday, alongside U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois John Lausch, as well as the deputy director of the FBI and other federal officials.
Federal agents and agencies involved in "Operation Legend," an effort intended to help state and local officials fight violent crime, have made more than 500 arrests in Chicago since the operation was expanded to the city in late July, Barr said at the news conference.
When asked why members of Chicago police were not at the announcement, Barr said they were invited and declined to attend, citing "politics" in part.
"They were certainly invited and could have attended but one of the odd things about our program in this city are, you know, some of the politics involved and I'm sure that was an element of it," Barr said.
"I think you'll have to ask the mayor and the police chief," Barr continued, adding that he would later be taking part in a ride-along with Supt. David Brown. A CPD spokesman confirmed that Barr and Brown would take part in the ride-along in the city's 7th District but declined to comment on Barr's comments or offer an explanation as to why CPD did not attend Wednesday's announcement.
Lightfoot, who said she was not personally invited to any events with Barr but sent him a letter during his visit on Wednesday, said "it was politics that made us decide not to be there."
"We're never going to be used as a prop, never," she said during an unrelated press conference.
Barr said Chicago saw a 45% decrease in murders in August as compared to July and a 35% decrease since June - figures both Brown and Mayor Lori Lightfoot touted separately, without crediting federal law enforcement, in news conferences the day before.
Barr noted that Brown and Lightfoot excluded federal efforts in their own discussions on the decrease in crime, which Brown had earlier attributed in part to his own reorganization of the department after he was hired in April.
"I know that the city has put out information about the drop in crime and is crediting a number of factors. Absent among those factors is the federal contribution," Barr said Wednesday, adding, "That's just the way things roll in Chicago."
Still, Lightfoot said a number of strategies were put in place even before federal agents were sent to the city and it was too early to tell if Operation Legend was having such an impact on violent crime.
"I don't think it's accurate to say there is a direct cause and effect," she said, adding that while progress has been made, one month is "not enough time to make a significant impact."
"The partnership is important and it is strong, but nobody should be taking a victory lap," she said.
When asked if CPD's absence signified a "disconnect" between the department and federal authorities, Barr said that wasn't his focus.
"I'm not focused on those aspects of it. I'm focused on the law enforcement working together, the professional law enforcement approach and actually getting the job done. Politicians can do what they want to do," he said.
Lausch then appeared to walk Barr's comments back, stepping to the podium unprompted to say, "To be clear, there is no disconnect between the Chicago Police Department and federal law enforcement."
"We work together all the time, they're very supportive of all of our efforts and we're thrilled to help them fight violent crime," he added. "Law enforcement to law enforcement level, things are going very well."
Barr also used Wednesday's announcement in part to criticize ongoing efforts pushing for racial justice and police reform that have continued in Chicago and nationwide, blaming those protests in part for a spike in crime earlier this year and repeating a "law and order" refrain often employed by President Donald Trump as he campaigns for reelection.
"The increases in crime may be a number of factors involved but part of it is the emboldening of critical elements," Barr said, when asked about what may have contributed to the increase in violence.
Protests against police brutality erupted nationwide in late May after video was released showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly 9 minutes, killing him. The push for racial justice has also taken place against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted minority communities, exacerbating racial inequalities in health care in Chicago and nationwide.
"With the incident with George Floyd and the attacks on the police and the demonization of police and discussion of defunding, we saw sharp increases [in violence] in cities like Chicago," Barr said, crediting "Operation Legend" with a drop in crime in recent weeks.
"Operation Legend is working. Crime is down and order is being restored in this great American city," Barr said.
Federal authorities said the operation in Chicago included 400 federal agents dedicated to the effort - 200 new to the city and 200 re-purposed from their previous positions.
It also included more than $9 million in grant money to the Chicago Police Department which allowed police to add 75 more positions, Barr said, as well as $3.5 million in "technical assistance to support the expanded anti-crime initiatives."
Many of the 500 arrests made in Chicago were for violent crime like homicides, sexual assault and robbery, Barr said, with 124 defendants facing federal charges, including charges related to both firearms and drug trafficking, among others.
"Operation Legend" drew skepticism when it debuted around the same time activists in Portland said federal agents in unmarked vehicles were abducting protesters off the street without cause.
But when the effort's expansion in Chicago was announced, Lightfoot - a former federal prosecutor who has often tried to politically position herself against Trump - insisted that the additional agents and support were simply adding to existing infrastructure.
Lightfoot said the agents being sent to Chicago would not be used in the way they were in Portland, and that she has been “firm” in her stance against that type of show of force.
“If there was anything that happened like that, we would be making sure that we did everything possible to stop that in its tracks,” Lightfoot said at the time. “These are not troops. Troops are people who come from the military. That’s not what’s coming to Chicago, and I’ve drawn a very firm line against that.”
Despite the mayor’s assurances, many officials were skeptical about the program. More than 60 elected officials sent a letter to Lightfoot and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in July asking that federal agents not be allowed to use city police or county sheriff property, staff or resources during their stay in Chicago.
The operation was launched in Kansas City, Missouri, in early July and was expanded to Chicago, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Memphis and Indianapolis in the weeks following.