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Attorney General William Barr credits Operation Legend for recent dip in homicides at Chicago briefing

Attorney General William. Barr gives an update on Operation Legend on Sept. 9, 2020, at a news conference at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Sounding the Trump administration’s tough-on-crime theme, Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday during a visit to Chicago that the federal Operation Legend program has led directly to a significant drop in shootings in the violence-torn city over the past five weeks.

Since Operation Legend launched in Chicago on July 22, homicides have dropped by 50%, Barr said in a news conference with other federal law enforcement leaders at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.

A total of 124 defendants have been charged with federal felonies under the program, including 90 who face firearms-related charges and 30 more charged with drug trafficking, Barr said.

“Operation Legend is working,” he said. “Crime is down and order is being restored to this great American city.”

But Barr’s remarks came as the city was still reeling from another violent holiday weekend, with more than 50 people shot and nine homicides, including an 8-year-old girl fatally shot while riding in a car and a mother of two stabbed to death while stocking shelves at a Walgreens.

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And Chicago recorded 63 homicides in August — the highest toll for killings during that month in at least four years, police statistics show. Additionally, 503 people were shot in August, the highest shooting toll since at least 2017.

The numbers were down significantly from July, however, which was one of the bloodiest months in decades with 105 people slain.

Barr’s visit also highlighted the deep political divisions between local Democratic leadership and the Trump administration, which has said that Democratic-run cities like Chicago have emboldened criminals and demoralized police departments with a soft-on-crime approach.

Even as Barr touted the federal violence-reduction efforts, the Chicago Police Department on Wednesday released a glowing review of its own performance, saying the recent reductions in shootings and homicides came after the department in July deployed two citywide units tasked with responding to crime hot spots to tamp down on gun violence.

Barr noted that the city’s news release made no mention of Operation Legend or any other federal assistance.

“So … just the way things roll here in Chicago,” Barr said, his answer trailing off before U.S. Attorney John Lausch tapped him on the shoulder and asked if he could jump in.

Lausch said he could “assure everyone” that there was no disconnect between federal and local law enforcement.

Neither Mayor Lori Lightfoot — who was presiding Wednesday over the monthly City Council meeting — nor Chicago police Superintendent David Brown was present at Barr’s news conference. The attorney general said they were invited but chose not to come.

Barr said he was scheduled to go on a ride-along through the city with Brown later in the day.

Operation Legend was named in honor of 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, fatally shot while he slept early in the morning of June 29 in Kansas City, Missouri. The initiative has also expanded to Albuquerque, New Mexico; Cleveland; Detroit; Milwaukee; St. Louis; Memphis, Tennessee; and Indianapolis.

Lightfoot initially said she had great concerns about the possibility of President Donald Trump sending feds to Chicago based on what had happened in Portland, Oregon, where federal agents in unmarked cars were accused of grabbing protesters off the street without due cause.

Barr said Trump later described for Lightfoot what Operation Legend would entail and that she “said she would accept the help.”

The program landed in Chicago amid an alarming spike in gun violence to levels not seen in years, claiming victims as young as 1-year-old. In July, a shooting outside a funeral home saw 15 people wounded — the worst mass shooting in recent Chicago memory.

Most recently, 8-year-old Dajore Wilson was fatally shot in the back Monday near 47th Street in the Canaryville neighborhood as she sat in a car with her mother and others. Police have said the shooting was likely gang-related and that the shooter was targeting someone else in the car.

The Chicago Tribune reported last month there had been a concerted push for more federal cases, including many brought by Chicago police directly to the feds instead of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, which has historically handled the vast majority of Chicago gun felonies.

The trend led to some confusion among county prosecutors. On July 25, just days after Trump’s Operation Legend announcement, an email sent by a high-ranking prosecutor to attorneys in the felony review unit said Chicago police would be taking all gun arrests to federal agents first, giving them the right of first refusal in deciding whether to bring charges.

But the strict policy was apparently never put into place. A statement from State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office said it “considered a change in how gun cases would be reviewed” but ultimately changed nothing.

At his news conference Wednesday, Barr declined to comment specifically on Foxx, but called out in general what he said were soft-on-crime local prosecutors that lead to a “revolving door” for violent offenders.

“A lot of these hoodlums on the street feel … they can just carry guns with impunity,” Barr said. “They don’t hide them anymore.”

According to Barr, Operation Legend has been funded in Chicago with more than $9 million in federal grant money and an additional $3.5 million in technical assistance.

FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich said his agency has 60 new special agents working cases here, as well as analysts, evidence experts and other investigative support.

He said violent criminals should know if they’re charged and convicted in federal court, they likely will spend significant time behind bars.

“It is very unlikely you’re going to walk in the front door and out the back,” Bowdich said.

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© 2020 Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.