Barr’s KC arrest claims unfounded

Michael Wilner
Anna Spoerre and Bryan Lowry The Kansas City Star (TNS)
Attorney General William Barr attends a coronavirus briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 23, 2020.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A senior Department of Justice official on Wednesday corrected comments by Attorney General William Barr, who minutes earlier had said 200 arrests had been made within two weeks in Kansas City as part of Operation Legend, a federal anti-crime effort.

Barr's comments had come during a news conference Wednesday about the operation, which is said to be sending hundreds of federal agents into the metro area to stop a surge of violent crime in the city.

"Just to give you an idea of what's possible, the FBI went in very strong into Kansas City and within two weeks we've had 200 arrests," Barr had said.

The number baffled many in Kansas City, including local officials who said they could not vouch for it.

Speaking with McClatchy after the Wednesday event, the senior Justice Department official clarified that the 200 figure included arrests dating back to December 2019.

It also included, the official said, both state and FBI arrests in joint operations.

The official said Barr was referring to the number of arrests made in the city since the launch of Operation Relentless Pursuit, a precursor effort to Operation Legend that surged federal agents in U.S. cities facing crime waves, including Kansas City.

"We have made since December 2019 200 arrests in Kansas City," the senior official said, referring to the launch of that initial operation. "Legend is essentially a continuation of that."

Wednesday's statement by Barr came just two days after the first charge was announced in connection with Operation Legend.

Monty W. Ray, 20, of Kansas City, was arrested Friday by an Independence officer and an agent with the U.S. Marshals Service. Ray was charged Monday in federal court with being an unlawful drug user in possession of firearms, according to a criminal complaint.

Officials in Kansas City said they had no knowledge of any number of arrests close to Barr's figure.

When asked just before 11 a.m. Tuesday if there had been any additional arrests since Ray, Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Kansas City, said "No, not that I'm aware of."

Ledford said he was checking on Barr's comments when contacted Wednesday. He also said he'd been made aware of additional arrests since Tuesday morning, but couldn't yet provide a specific number.

Prior to the DOJ's correction of the misinformation, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas had cast doubt on the claim. Lucas said that he was aware only of one arrest that had been announced by the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City.

"You can't verify it because nothing can be verified ... This is where some of the confusion goes on," Lucas said.

Matthew Miller, a former DOJ official, was shocked by Barr's statement after The Star reported on its inaccuracy.

"Wow. Barr says today there have been 200 arrests in the past two weeks. KC says the real number is more like one. Then DOJ backtracks and says 200 is since December and includes local arrests. What the hell is going on at DOJ?" tweeted Miller, who led the DOJ's public affairs from 2009 to 2011 during President Barack Obama's administration.

The newest Kansas City operation, named for 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot June 29 when sleeping in an apartment in Kansas City, is aimed at quelling a "surge of violent crime," Barr said earlier this month. This year is on track to be the city's deadliest, with 110 homicides reported as of Wednesday, according to data kept by The Star that includes police shootings.

Since its announcement, Operation Legend has been met with some backlash and protests decrying the presence of federal law enforcement in Kansas City. On Thursday, the White House touted the operation as a successful federal response to violent crime.

As Operation Legend rolls out, 225 federal agents from the FBI, DEA, Marshals Service and ATF are expected to join 400 agents already working and living in the metro area, Tim Garrison, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, said at a July 15 news conference.

Garrison said Monday that any federal agents making arrests as part of the new operation to reduce violent crime locally will be clearly identifiable.

He said the effort would not bear any resemblance to the operation playing out in Portland, Oregon. The U.S. attorney for Oregon has announced an investigation into reports alleging a number of protesters were detained without probable cause by federal law enforcement agents who did not identify themselves last week.

"These agents won't be patrolling the streets," Garrison said. "They won't replace or usurp the authority of local officers."

One of Garrison's predecessors said in an email to The Star that the attorney general's use of inaccurate numbers to promote could erode trust in federal law enforcement.

"There is nothing more important than transparency and accuracy in law enforcement efforts as public confidence and support is at stake when they fail to meet the standards," said Stephen Hill, Jr., who served as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri from 1993 to 2001 during Bill Clinton's presidency.

"The fact they are using data dating back to an earlier effort raised the question whether this is a new approach and how this effort is different from the earlier approach."

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump announced the expansion of Operation Legend into additional cities around the country, defying local government officials who have warned that he lacked the authority to send federal agents into their streets.

Speaking from the White House, Trump said he had "no choice but to get involved" amid rising violent crime rates in several of America's largest cities, including Albuquerque and Chicago, where Operation Legend will soon be initiated.

Following the expansion announcement, Lucas said Trump was "exploiting the pain of our particularly Black community" during an election year.

"I do have concerns with the president's racial undertones in his rhetoric. When I was growing up they used to call it dog-whistling. I think the president has exceeded that," Lucas said. "It's frustrating to me."