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Attorney General William Barr praises Operation Legend as political tensions flare

Mayor Lori Lightfoot later rejected a direct link between Operation Legend and fewer homicides in Chicago.

Attorney General William Barr speaks to reporters about Operation Legend in Chicago on Wednesday.
Attorney General William Barr speaks to reporters about Operation Legend in Chicago on Wednesday.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Attorney General William Barr made a rare appearance in Chicago on Wednesday, claiming a new federal crime-fighting initiative had already succeeded in substantially reducing violence in the city.

But political tensions inevitably flared. His visit occurred two months before President Donald Trump hopes to be re-elected on a “law-and-order” message. His victory lap could be premature if numbers trend back up. And it all was juxtaposed against a holiday weekend that saw 51 people shot and 10 people killed — including an 8-year-old girl.

Not only that, but Barr’s visit seemed to threaten the delicate local alliance of federal and city officials who have been working together to solve Chicago’s crime problem, despite the nation’s divisive politics.

Barr appeared at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse with U.S. Attorney John Lausch and other top federal officials to tout Operation Legend, an initiative that sent hundreds of additional federal agents to Chicago in recent weeks. Since then, Barr said 124 defendants have faced federal criminal charges here, including 90 facing gun charges and 30 charged with drug trafficking. Crucially, Barr said many of them have been detained pending trial.

“The results of those actions speak for themselves,” Barr said. “Over the first five weeks of Operation Legend in Chicago, murders dropped by 50% over the previous five weeks.”

Homicides dropped by closer to 40% from July to August, according to records kept by the Chicago Sun-Times. Though it’s a significant drop, the records also show the homicide count for August 2020 was 35% higher than in August 2019.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot later rejected a direct cause-and-effect between Operation Legend and the drop in homicide numbers, though. She said city officials began to see a downward trend in shootings and homicides in late July, while the additional federal agents didn’t arrive until early August.

There is no love lost between Lightfoot and the Trump administration. Barr also told reporters the Chicago Police Department had been invited to attend his news conference but chose not to participate — dismissing local politics as “just the way things roll here in Chicago.” Lightfoot later told reporters the city would not be used as a “prop” by an administration that has continued to “bad-mouth Chicago, making misleading and outright false statements.”

Noticeable amid Wednesday’s verbal skirmish, though, were overtures by Lightfoot and Lausch, who each made a point of voicing support for their local partners. Lightfoot is a former federal prosecutor.

As for whether that federal initiative truly sent the homicide rate in Chicago plummeting, University of Chicago Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig said, “there’s enough variability in the month-to-month crime numbers in Chicago that I think it’s maybe too early to think that we’ve turned the corner.”

Ludwig said social science suggests Operation Legend would have played a small, not dominant, role in the downward trend in homicides. A more significant factor might be the new leadership of the Chicago Police Department getting its organizational structure in place, he said. Or even social services finally getting their sea legs during the pandemic.

“We’re still all holding our breath to hope that we can collectively get the violence problem under control,” Ludwig said.

Contributing: Lynn Sweet, Fran Spielman