Police watch as protesters gather on August 24th, 2020 in Kenosha. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
When federal law enforcement operations like Relentless Pursuit and Operation Legend first began under the Trump Administration, local communities expressed concerns about being targeted. At face value, these programs focused on violent crime in a handful of cities, including Milwaukee. But residents and elected officials shared concerns that the operations could be used as proxies for a political attack on Black Lives Matter protesters.
As 2020 dragged on those concerns only grew, particularly after scenes of aggressive police actions in Portland, Ore. went viral. Documents obtained by Wisconsin Examiner via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) suggest that the lines between cracking down on violent crime and responding to protests and unrest was blurred in the lead-up to the November presidential election. A communique between two federal marshals sent on Aug. 25, two days after 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot seven times by a Kenosha Police Department officer, details clashes between law enforcement and protesters who converged on the city.
“In the early morning hours of Aug. 24 the protests devolved into a riot event and the Kenosha Police Department requested our assistance,” part of the message reads. “At that time myself [redacted] of our GLRFRF TFO’s responded to Kenosha immediately. Additional personnel consisting of myself, [redacted] GLRFTF TFO’s responded to Kenosha the evening of the 24 into this morning. Although I am still working out the details and staffing we will be responding to Kenosha again this evening and into tomorrow morning.”
Despite the presence of pro-Trump militias in Kenosha, the reports and intelligence summaries regularly focus on perceived Black Lives Matter protesters in Democratic cities previously singled out by Trump.
“Kenosha experience [sic] an massive influx of out of town agitators who came from Milwaukee, Chicago, Madison, and elsewhere in the country,” the communique states. “Local law enforcement units holding a line and protecting the Justice Center experienced the same attacks as we have seen in Portland. They are attacking with rocks, bottles and commercial grade mortar fireworks. Additionally vehicle structure fires, including a State of Wisconsin Probation/Parole Office building, were set throughout the city by roving groups of rioters.” Mentions of Portland are telling, as teams of US Marshals from the embattled city were re-deployed to Kenosha by Aug. 27.
The communique goes on to describe specific examples of Marshals task force responses to the unrest that day. The marshal described responding to, “multiple, armed subject calls and vehicles of armed people roving neighborhoods.” Although these people were surveilled and later identified by law enforcement, they do not appear to have been arrested. “Wisconsin is an open carry state,” the marshal wrote.
Leveraging unrest to get “what we need”
Among the accounts in the document there are thick blocks of redacted text. “Marshal, you noted that the Director in his call asked if we needed additional support and what we needed as a district,” part of a largely redacted paragraph reads. “Milwaukee is one of the poorest large metro cities in the U.S. and also the most racially segregated large city depending on what polls you read. We have been included in every VRN and PSP Operation and now Relentless Pursuit and Legend because of its violence and the violence in general of South East Wisconsin.”
After a redacted section it continues “I apologize for the rant but I believe we have a unique opportunity to seek what we all know we need if the Director’s Office is calling the District and asking what we need. This is what we need to be effective in Wisconsin. On a national scale this is a drop in the bucket.”Legend
State Rep. Jonathan Brostoff (D-Milwaukee) found the comments in the marshal document to be repulsive. “It’s absolutely disgusting, and it’s corruption at the highest levels,” he told Wisconsin Examiner. “It’s a good example of why people are so upset in the first place. And it also makes you wonder what’s really behind those sorts of redactions. If he’s going on a long rant, is it possible that it’s something just so embarrassing? I really would like to see what that original statement was.”
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A week after the communique was sent, the Trump Justice Department unveiled $41 million in funding to “address public safety in Wisconsin.” The funds coincided with a visit by the former president to the wounded community. By this time, although protests in Kenosha continued, the unrest had settled down as city residents processed the trauma. Two people had been fatally shot and another maimed, allegedly by the then 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse who arrived alongside other armed militia groups. Trump expressed his sympathies for Rittenhouse, and then-Attorney General William Barr announced the grant awards.
Barr praised military, federal and local responses in Kenosha stating they had “restored” Kenosha “from violent agitators who have abused their First Amendment rights to frighten citizens and fan the flames of disorder.” He added that, “today’s grant money will help to bolster community-based crime-fighting initiatives and provide much needed support to victims affected by the recent violence.”
The money could be used by law enforcement a variety of ways, with a particular focus on initiatives like Project Safe Neighborhoods. Utilizing place-based policing strategies, this project focuses on reducing violent crime. In Milwaukee under former police Chief Alfonso Morales, Project Safe Neighborhoods manifested as a high value target program knocking off criminal organizations around the city.
Milwaukee was also on the list for Operation Relentless Pursuit, which also focused on violent crime. Then came Operation Legend, another effort apparently focusing on violent crime, along with a Community-Oriented Policing (COPS) grant and other sources of funds, equipment, and manpower.
Operation Legend ended by the time Barr left office, following Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden. Kenneth Gales, a spokesman for the Eastern District of Wisconsin U.S. Attorney’s Office, told Wisconsin Examiner that the $41 million in grants are still active under the Biden Administration.
Some $1,526,377 were rewarded directly to Milwaukee. Another $1,928,571 were awarded to Wisconsin’s Department of Justice to support Operation Legend in Milwaukee. Over $10.2 million, including 1.85 million in COPS money, was also awarded for public safety. Gales noted that, “the balance of funds are victim assistance and victim compensation to the state.”
Brostoff, however, is unconvinced that the motives behind these funds and operations were really about public safety. “They don’t care about that,” he said. “If they really cared about crime, then they would be pushing for investment in resources and targeted economic opportunities. And things that would actually prevent crime, and we have best practices, we know what that looks like. And it ain’t this.”
Chasing a straight answer
News that the U.S. Marshals were involved in the Wauwatosa curfew prompted tough questions from elected officials to then-U.S. Attorney for Wisconsin’s Eastern District Matthew Krueger. Sen. Tammy Baldwin was among those who demanded in July that Portland-style tactics not be used in Wisconsin. Despite Krueger’s assurances, the Examiner learned that teams of federal agents did come directly to Kenosha from Portland.
Wisconsin Examiner reached out to Baldwin’s office regarding the Marshals’ document to ask about the portions suggesting that the unrest could be used to fuel other operations. “Sen. Baldwin strongly disagrees with the use of federal Marshals to assist a local police department in this manner,” a spokesperson said, referring to the Portland redeployment. “Given the assurances Sen. Baldwin received from the U.S. Attorney that the Marshals would not be used as they were in Portland, Ore. last year, she will be following up with the Department of Justice to get answers.”
The spokesperson added that Krueger has resigned since Baldwin spoke with him regarding the U.S. Marshals. Other documents from the U.S. Marshals describing the Portland redeployments also mention that, “due to the scale of the Portland Operation [redacted] accumulated large amounts of equipment.”
Nevertheless, when re-approached, Gales reasserted the office’s prior stance. “Operation Legend was not connected to the unrest in Kenosha,” he reiterated. “The expansion of Operation Legend into Milwaukee was announced in July 2020, before the unrest in Kenosha. The operation involved efforts to address violent crime in Milwaukee (along with specified other cities nationwide.) The United States Attorney’s Office is not aware of any change in resources for Operation Legend due to the unrest in Kenosha or Wauwatosa.” The U.S. Marshals Service has not responded to a request for comment. A reply will be added here if one arrives.
Looking forward, some local officials hope that a change in administration will lead to more creative ways to allocate resources. District Attorney John Chisholm recalls disputes with the Trump Administration over immigration enforcement policies. “With the change in Department of Justice administration I think, I’m hopeful, that they will start focusing on sort of collaborative and helpful approaches to help us resource violence reduction efforts,” Chisholm told Wisconsin Examiner. “As opposed to, you know, threatening to take away all my funding if I don’t aggressively enforce federal immigration law.”
He added that, “I’m actually hopeful that we can get back to focusing on expanding efforts that help us reduce — and by that I’m not talking about, ‘Hey lets get more money for more cops, or more prosecutors.’ It’s really, if we could get the resourcing to even further develop some of these public health approaches. Get some of the resources into the hands of the community-based organizations that are doing a lot of the work, without any resources or recognition. But to actually formalize that process and help them, help us. That would be a step in the right direction.” Brostoff emphasized the importance moving policy beyond the Trump Administration’s lingering shadow.
“As fascist and as horrible as it was,” said Brostoff, “that was the house on fire urgency. And that was literally secret police taking people off the street. That was some horrible stuff, that was exactly some nightmare scenario-type stuff. But going back to what it was before is not acceptable. We can’t just undo the trauma and horrors of what Trump unleashed, although that also must be done. On top of that, there also has to be a significant change in how things have been done … because status quo was also not acceptable. So yes, Biden will be worlds better but that doesn’t mean that he is acceptable. We have to keep pushing … there has to be a fundamental paradigm shift in where resources are being prioritized. That’s what has to happen.”
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