Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
More than 25 additional federal agents will be coming to Albuquerque in the next couple of days as part of Operation Legend, an initiative that federal officials stress is about fighting violent crime – especially gun violence – not cracking down on protests.
President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf announced the operation during a news conference at the White House on Wednesday afternoon.
They were joined by the widower of a woman who was shot to death in the driveway of her West Side Albuquerque home in November as well as the mother of 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, of Kansas City, Missouri, who was shot and killed last month while he slept. Operation Legend is named after the boy and it began in Kansas City.
Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales also attended the news conference at the White House, but he did not speak.
During a short speech, Trump said there has been a “shocking explosion” of “heinous crimes” as a result of efforts to defund, dismantle, and dissolve police departments. He blasted city leaders throughout the country for not doing enough to combat crime and for putting the “interests of criminals” above law-abiding citizens.
“Under Operation Legend, we will also soon send federal law enforcement to other cities that need help,” Trump said. “Other cities need help. They need it badly. They should call. They should want it. They’re too proud or they’re too political to do that. One of them is Albuquerque, New Mexico.”
In an interview after the White House news conference, U.S. Attorney for New Mexico John Anderson said the goal of the operation is to reduce gun violence in Albuquerque.
“Any effort to compare Operation Legend to what’s going on in Portland is baseless and misguided,” he said. “There is no connection between those two. The federal law enforcement resources that are being deployed are directed at reducing gun violence; they are not directed at arresting or controlling protesters; they are not being directed at restricting anyone’s right to protest. … They are not being directed at immigration enforcement, and they are not being directed at protecting statues. It’s limited to the exclusive goal of eliminating the scourge of gun violence.”
State and local leaders, however, remained unconvinced and said they wanted more information and assurances about what the operation will entail.
Anderson said agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives will be trickling into Albuquerque over the next several days and will supplement those who are already stationed here. He did not know whether they will be outfitted with body-worn cameras but did say they will be wearing clearly marked uniforms unless they’re undercover.
“Obviously, what we would like to see is the rate of gun violence drop. That is something that has been our goal for some time, and it’s remained, despite those efforts, it’s remained stubbornly high,” he said. “I think despite the efforts of state and local partners as well.”
Jacqueline Vigil – a 55-year-old mother of two New Mexico State Police officers – was held up as a tragic example of a victim of unsolved violent crime in Albuquerque.
At the news conference, Jacqueline’s husband, Sam Vigil, recounted the morning his wife was killed while sitting in her car on her way to the gym. He said he still thinks about it every time he is in their driveway and at night before he goes to sleep.
“It’s been eight months, and there have been no arrests at all,” Vigil said. “There are other victims in Albuquerque that are in the same boat.”
A spokesman for the Albuquerque Police Department said the investigation is ongoing.
“We’ve already been working with state and federal partners on the Vigil case and continue to welcome their help because it’s just not happening fast enough,” spokesman Gilbert Gallegos wrote in a statement.
AG Barr said that police have been “demonized” since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and that there has been an “extreme reaction” in many cities. He said Operation Legend is a direct response to calls to defund or weaken police departments.
Asked whether this played a part in agents being sent to Albuquerque, Anderson said he believes the city was chosen because of its high crime rates – including a record 80 homicides in 2019 – and the existing partnerships between local and federal agencies.
“When you look at the violent crime rates, that’s all that went into it,” Anderson said. “From my perspective, it didn’t have anything to do with the rhetoric about defund the police.”
Recently released crime statistics from APD show a decrease in property crime from 2018 to 2019 and violent crime holding steady. Although homicides spiked in 2019, this year, has had fewer cases.
Sheriff Gonzales sent his condolences to the Vigil family and stressed his commitment to fighting crime in Albuquerque.
“Today’s announcement from the federal government speaks for itself, and the local FBI also made it clear what Operation Legend special agents will do: combat Albuquerque’s out of control crime crisis and solve homicides,” he said in a statement.
As hints about Operation Legend in Albuquerque began to circulate earlier this week, city and state leaders expressed fears that agents would carry out tactics against protesters that they have been using in Portland, Oregon. They referenced Trump’s “secret police” and “storm troopers” and officers “snatching protesters off the street.”
Sheriff Gonzales was blasted by several fellow Democrats and others for his decision to attend the White House briefing. Democratic U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich and the American Civil Liberties Union both called for him to resign.
In statements Wednesday after the news conference, local leaders cautioned that the operation was going to be a bait-and-switch move and said they didn’t trust the administration.
“Given President Trump and Attorney General Barr’s track record of using Department of Justice resources to carry out the president’s political whims, we cannot stand down on these threats until we have confirmation, in writing, differentiating what is planned for New Mexico from the illegal and unconstitutional actions by federal agents in Portland,” Heinrich said in a statement.
Mayor Tim Keller sent a statement saying the president is ready to incite violence in Democratic cities and is forming a reelection strategy “built on gaslighting immigrants and people of color.” He cautioned that two weeks ago the administration said federal officers were going to Portland to guard the courthouse.
“We always welcome partnerships in constitutional crime fighting that are in step with our community, but we won’t sell out our city for a bait-and-switch excuse to send secret police to Albuquerque,” Keller said. “Operation Legend is not real crime fighting; it’s politics standing in the way of police work and makes us less safe.”
Although Steve Pearce, the state GOP chairman, did not watch Trump’s briefing, he said he trusts those in power to “get crime in control again.”
Pearce said it was “irresponsible” for local leaders to use terms like “storm troopers” or “secret police.”
“Here you’ve got a Democrat sheriff going to Washington to talk to President Trump – everybody always talks about bipartisanship, but when it does happen then you get calls for resignation, you get calls to step down,” he said. “So it makes me wonder if the other side really wants bipartisanship or not.”
Meanwhile, the governor and the state attorney general said they will actively monitor the operation for civil rights violations and urge anyone who is affected to contact their offices.
Before the White House briefing, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said that if the Trump administration really wants to assist local law enforcement – with community policing activities and data-driven crime-fighting initiatives – it would welcome the conversation.
“If the Trump administration wishes to antagonize New Mexicans and Americans with authoritarian, unnecessary and unaccountable military-style ‘crackdowns,’ they have no business whatsoever in New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a statement. “An exercise meant only to escalate tension in New Mexico communities would be flatly unacceptable.”
Before there was Operation Legend, there was “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” a crime-fighting initiative the DOJ launched in seven cities – including Albuquerque and Kansas City – at the end of last year.
Anderson said arrests and investigations were done under that operation, but ultimately the DOJ decided to end it because of COVID-19 related travel restrictions and concerns.
“Operation Relentless Pursuit was really focused on the injection of these funds and making the funds available and permanent pluck up of some of those federal law enforcement agencies in Albuquerque,” Anderson said. “This really focuses on a deployment of federal resources on a more temporary basis to try to get the gun crime epidemic in check.”
He said the grant funding that had been awarded to both APD and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office under Operation Relentless Pursuit will still be offered. However, he said, no new funding has been announced.
BCSO received $1.4 million in grant funding tied to Operation Relentless Pursuit earlier this year by certifying that it complied with certain conditions tied to the grant agreement.
APD was awarded $9.7 million to hire 40 officers, but it has not received anything. Anderson has previously said that the city’s immigrant-friendly policies were contrary to some of the grant conditions.
Police Chief Michael Geier mentioned that funding in a statement sent after the news conference.
“While we welcome any assistance and additional resources to address violent crime, the President promised help in the past and has not yet followed through,” Geier said. “We are still waiting on the $10 million Operation Relentless Pursuit funding that was promised last year to help us with our goal to hire more officers and to bring in additional federal law enforcement agents to assist us in our crime fighting efforts. While I will try to remain optimistic, I won’t hold my breath until we see all this actually come to fruition.”