Records obtained from the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) through an American Oversight Freedom of Information Act request shed new light on the special deputation of law enforcement officers across the country as part of the Trump administration’s controversial Operation Legend program.
Operation Legend was announced on July 8, 2020, in the midst of a nationwide federal crackdown on racial justice protests against police killings. The Justice Department program, which sent federal officers to cities across the country purportedly to combat violent crime, was criticized as a politicized attempt to bolster then-President Donald Trump’s “law and order” campaign message. The fact that the initiative was an “extension” of an existing Justice Department program served as additional indication of its potentially politicized aims.
The records obtained by American Oversight contain internal communications that reflect this rebranding of the previous program. They also contain more than 250 forms related to the deputation of federal and local law enforcement officers, roughly two-thirds of which appear to be completed and signed. In some cases, it appears forms may be duplicates, although redactions make it difficult to determine which represent individual deputations.
Federal deputations are a common component of the partnerships and task forces that USMS engages in as part of its fugitive apprehension role. But in confrontations between local officers and civilians, a federal deputation can lead to increased federal charges against defendants. Officers involved in USMS task forces also often operate without the same oversight measures that may generally be required by local jurisdictions. For example, it wasn’t until October 2020 that the Justice Department announced federal task forces, including those from USMS, would be permitted to wear body cams. And watchdog reporting suggests USMS operations are involved in higher rates of fatal shootings than are local operations — one of the issues at the heart of recent racial justice demonstrations.
In February 2021, criminal justice investigative outlet the Marshall Project and USA Today published a report reviewing the use of force by marshals or by local officers deputized to work on USMS task forces between Jan. 1, 2015, and Sept. 10, 2020. They found that at least 177 people were shot by marshals, task force members, or local cops helping in a marshal’s arrest, 124 of whom died. On average, according to the Marshall Project, they shot 31 people a year, killing 22 of them — significantly higher numbers than urban police forces of similar sizes.
Operation Legend sent more agents to many of those task forces, bringing with it renewed concern about lack of local oversight. The records obtained by American Oversight provide details about where many of the deputations took place as the program, which began in Kansas City, Mo., expanded to other cities. Deputation forms included in the records contain details about the officer’s parent law enforcement agency, where they made their oath of office, and the length of their deputation.
The records show 24 deputations that were signed in Kansas City, 18 of them dated July 23, 2020. Almost a week later, 25 oaths were signed in Chicago. The following month, the records show 15 oaths signed in St. Louis. Milwaukee saw 38 oaths signed throughout September, starting with a batch of 24 on Sept. 11. The highest number of deputations in the records occurred in Albuquerque, with 58 oaths signed on Sept. 4 and Sept. 16. In some cases, the deputations were set to last months. In others, such as those involving the Milwaukee Police Department, the deputations appear to only extend for days or weeks.
The records also include correspondence related to getting many of those forms approved, with several officials expressing urgency around the project. A Great Lakes Regional Fugitive Task Force staffer submitting deputation applications on July 23 told officials at the Special Deputations Branch that “the sooner we can get [the deputations] back the better,” and noted the previous day’s expansion of the operation to Chicago and Albuquerque.
On Aug. 27, after the program had been expanded to still more cities, a USMS investigative analyst with the New Mexico District also requested to fast-track Operation Legend-related deputation applications.
“Please be advised that this is for Operation Legend. Please expedite,” wrote the analyst, whose name is redacted. Another email from Sept. 9 also requests expedited processing; the sender’s name is also redacted, so it is unclear if it is the same official.
Other messages point to Operation Legend’s status as a continuation of Operation Relentless Pursuit (ORP), which the Justice Department announced in December 2019 and which similarly focused federal resources on reducing crime in select urban areas.
On July 30, a USMS administrative officer from the Great Lakes Regional Fugitive Task Force wrote that the new project was “a continuation of ORP even though it is now being referred to as Operation Legend,” and indicated that they wanted to deputize the same Milwaukee Police Department officers for Operation Legend as for ORP.
In a congressional hearing just two days before, Rep. Jerry Nadler asked then-Attorney General William Barr whether the Justice Department had rebranded prior programs as Operation Legend “in order to assist the president in an election year.” Barr denied that Operation Legend was merely a rebranded version of ORP, saying that the Covid-19 pandemic had interrupted the earlier program, and described Operation Legend as a “reboot.”
The new records also contain an email from Sept. 11, 2020, regarding Milwaukee deputations, which similarly grouped the programs together. “These are for the group application for Operation Legend/ Relentless Pursuit,” a USMS official noted.
In August, American Oversight filed a FOIA request for records regarding the number of people arrested as part of Operation Legend. USMS told us in November that it had no records responsive to that request — the next month, the Justice Department said the program had led to more than 6,000 arrests. Barr had previously announced in July 2020 that Operation Legend had led to 200 arrests in Kansas City within its first two weeks, only for the Justice Department to make a correction: That figure referred to arrests from Operation Relentless Pursuit.
American Oversight continues to seek answers about Operation Legend — including arrest data from other departments and agencies — as well as about the legacy of the Trump administration’s brutal response to racial justice protests.
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