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Barr Touts Success Of Federal Law Enforcement Surge In St. Louis, But Questions Remain

United States Attorney General William Barr Makes Visit To St. Louis
Bill Greenblatt
U.S. Attorney General William Barr, left, listens as St. Louis police chief John Hayden speaks Thursday at a discussion of Operation LeGend, a surge of federal law enforcement into the city to combat violent crime.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr was in St. Louis on Thursday to trumpet the success of a surge of federal law enforcement in fighting violent crime in the city.

St. Louis in August became part of Operation LeGend. Fifty-five people had been killed in July, a level of violence that officials called “intolerable.” At its peak, there were 124 additional agents and officers assigned to various task forces and police units throughout the city.

In brief remarks before a closed-door meeting with law enforcement leaders, Barr touted the impact of those agents — 650 arrests, with 275 people facing federal charges. Homicides, he said, were down 49% in the eight weeks following the surge compared to the eight weeks before, and aggravated assaults were down 17%.

“The first duty of government is to protect the safety of its citizens,” Barr said. “And that is primarily state and local responsibility. But the federal government can make a contribution, particularly in the area of guns and gangs and drugs.”

But Kenneth Novak, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, cautioned against drawing any conclusions about the numbers.

“It’s unclear whether a surge in law enforcement actually caused any change, or whether the natural ebb and flow of crime rates was going to go down anyway,” Novak said. “We can only answer those types of questions with the benefit of a longer-term lens.”

Barr did not answer any questions during the meeting. In a brief phone interview after the event, U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen said there was no way to know if Operation LeGend was solely responsible for the drop, or if other efforts like Hayden’s Rectangle or de-escalation programs had played a role.

“But violence makes it hard for those programs to succeed,” he said.

Jensen added that he hoped the decrease would be sustainable.

“We are learning some lessons and techniques that will be permanent,” he said.

Officials counted an arrest as part of Operation LeGend if it was made by an officer or agent assigned to the task force. Many of those investigations began long before the surge. In July, the Kansas City Star raised questions about the number of Operation LeGend arrests in that city, which was the first to see a surge of federal agents. The operation is named after LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old Kansas City boy who was asleep in his apartment when he was shot and killed in June.

In a post Thursday on Twitter, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner called the numbers “gerrymandered” and “bogus.”

The city remains on pace for a record number of homicides this year, with 212 people killed as of Thursday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said crime went down in the eight weeks after the surge compared to the nine weeks before the surge. The numbers compared eight weeks before and after the surge.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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