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Touting Operation Legend, Barr says 'crime is down' in Chicago. But murders are up.

Crystal Hill
·Reporter
·5 min read
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Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday credited a drop in homicides in Chicago to Operation Legend, a recent initiative that sent federal law enforcement to cities struggling with spikes in violent crime.

The data, however, shows there may not be much to celebrate.

At a press conference in Chicago, Barr and other federal officials gave an update on the progress of Operation Legend and its impact on crime. The Department of Justice announced more than 2,000 arrests since its launch. Calling it “one of the most significant federal law enforcement operations in recent years,” Barr said Operation Legend is working.

“Crime is down,” Barr said. “And order is being restored to this great American city.”

The initiative continues as Chicago and other Democratic-led cities with troubling crime rates remain political fodder for the Trump administration. The president has railed against the leadership in Chicago, New York and elsewhere for their surges in violence.

Operation Legend has been framed as the federal government’s attempt to clean up these cities. The initiative began on July 8 in Kansas City, Mo., and expanded to Chicago and Albuquerque on July 22. In a statement released after Wednesday’s presser, Barr asserted that Operation Legend has contributed to a 50 percent drop in homicides in the first seven weeks of its operation, compared with the five weeks prior to the operation’s launch.

He said that between April and the end of July, fatal shootings were rising in Chicago, but began declining in August. On Aug. 31, the Chicago Police Department reported a 45 percent decrease in murders in August compared with July, and a 35 percent decrease compared with June, according to a news release.

“In fact, [August] saw the lowest number of murders since April,” the Chicago Police Department said in the statement. The department declined to comment on Operation Legend and Barr’s remarks to Yahoo News.

Attorney General William Barr speaks on Operation Legend during a press conference in Chicago on Wednesday. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)
Attorney General William Barr speaks on Operation Legend during a press conference in Chicago on Wednesday. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

The department and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot were noticeably absent Wednesday, despite the initiative being billed as a unified local-federal collaboration. Barr said they were “certainly invited and could have attended, but one of the odd things about our program in this city are some of the politics involved, I’m sure that was an element of it.”

Lightfoot didn’t oppose the crimefighting effort when it was announced in July but expressed skepticism about whether it would add value. However, at a press conference later Wednesday she slammed what she described as an attempt to score political points for Trump’s reelection campaign.

“It was politics that made us decide not to be there,” Lightfoot said. “We’re never going to be used as a prop. Never.”

During Barr’s press conference, reporters pointed out that the attorney general is highlighting month-to-month changes to the crime rate. The overall homicide rate, according to statistics provided by the Chicago Police Department, still appears to be on a worrisome trajectory.

Data shows the city has seen 524 murders this year as of Sept. 6, up from 345 murders at this time last year, and a 31 percent increase from the amount of murders around this time in 2018.

Barr was asked if it was “premature” to say that an initiative that’s been in the city for just a few weeks is driving down crime. Many criminologists caution against using relatively short periods to denote a trend, or pointing to any one factor as a contributor to rising, or falling, crime.

“I’m highly skeptical that any single law enforcement action taken over the last six or eight weeks has had much of an impact,” Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who is compiling 2020 homicide data for multiple U.S. cities, told Yahoo News. “It’s like a drop in the bucket [in] Chicago.”

Barr at the press conference on Wednesday. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)
Barr at the press conference on Wednesday. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images)

But Barr said he’s confident that the work being done is improving the situation. U.S. Attorney John Lausch of the Northern District of Illinois agreed.

“Very clearly, Operation Legend helped,” Lausch said. “It helped stop what we were seeing were increases in homicides month after month after month. May, June, July. It was getting out of control, and it dropped.” Barr said a similar drop is happening in other Operation Legend cities.

A reporter, though, noted that Chicago has seen big crime shifts, month to month, up and down, over the years and asked Barr how he can credit a drop in murders to Operation Legend. “That is an absurd question,” Barr responded. “I did not attribute it entirely. What I said is I believe that it was an important part of that drop.”

Barr’s comments about the crime rate are “factually inaccurate,” Lightfoot said Wednesday, adding that the city started to see a downward trend in shootings and homicides beginning in late July. “The first additional federal agents that came to Chicago as part of Operation Legend didn’t even get here until Aug. 3.”

Asher’s data shows that in Chicago and other cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Oakland, overall violent crime has remained mostly steady, with a slight dip in 2020 compared with last year around this time.

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