UPDATED at 4 p.m. Thursday to recast story with details of the federal initiative.
ST. LOUIS — A controversial federal initiative targeting violent crime will bring 50 federal investigators and a $1 million grant to St. Louis, U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen said Thursday.
Jimmie Edwards, St. Louis public safety director, said he sought federal help after a surge in homicides and other shootings in St. Louis in the last two months. Edwards said there were 32 homicides in June and 53 in July, and an understaffed police department had a backlog of suspects being sought for those crimes, including 20 homicide suspects and several dozen more being pursued for crimes “just as heinous,” he said.
“Violent crime in St. Louis is intolerable lately,” Jensen said at a news conference Thursday. Jensen said that the federal investigators will be supplemented by Missouri Highway Patrol staffers, and Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt will lend two prosecutors to handle cases.
Jensen said Operation Legend will target violent offenders, gangs, so-called “active shooters” and fugitives. There will also be additional resources to respond to shooting scenes.
He declined to say how long the program will last, saying he didn’t want people to wait out the enhanced federal presence.
Responding to criticism of the program elsewhere, Jensen said the investigators will not be protecting federal property or responding to protests. Operation Legend is not “protection of federal buildings, protection of federal properties,” he said. “It’s not riot police. It’s not officers wearing fatigues. This is purely a violent crime effort. An effort to reduce the terrible murder rate we have seen lately.”
Critics have questioned the legality of the federal response to protests in Portland, Oregon, and said it led to more violence.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner said in a statement that she is “concerned about bringing more federal agents to the City of St. Louis given their recent behavior in Portland, Oregon, where officers stopped people without probable cause and interrupted peaceful protesters without warning. My office will hold law enforcement agencies accountable if they violate the rights of people who live in our community.”
Jensen said the announcement was not related to Gardner’s victory in the Democratic primary Tuesday, which essentially guarantees her reelection in the heavily Democratic city. He said the plan was in the works for some time.
Gov. Mike Parson, who attended Thursday’s news conference, said the same. “This has nothing to do with elections,” he said.
Jensen also said federal officials were changing tactics by charging people involved in conspiracies earlier to get them off the street, rather than waiting to see if the investigation would lead to others. “The problem is, if we wait, people are dying on the street,” he said.
As an example of that change in focus, Jensen said charges were filed Wednesday against 20 people and authorities seized about 2 kilograms of cocaine, 350 grams of crack cocaine, 3 kilos of methamphetamine and 12 guns.
After the news conference, about two dozen to three dozen protesters gathered at both the east and west parking garage entrances to police headquarters, where the conference was held. They chanted, “Resign Lyda, take the feds with you,” and “Lyda and Trump go hand in hand, resign Lyda, that’s our demand,” referring to Mayor Lyda Krewson, who was there.
Occupy City Hall STL organizer Khalea Edwards held a sign she drew up on the curb that read “How do you sleep at night?” Edwards said activists felt that Krewson and other leaders were not listening to their “incredibly clear” demands that the city defund the police and invest in the community. Allowing federal agents into the city was just a continuation of the city’s over-policing, she said.
She said protesters wanted Krewson and Jimmie Edwards “to know the people are not backing down.”
After the news conference, Parson, Krewson and other officials exited through the front doors of headquarters where no protesters were gathered and ducked into cars that sped away. Protesters ran into the street in front of police headquarters moments later and blocked traffic.
Protesters attempted to block another car they mistakenly thought was carrying Jensen, but minutes later a line of police officers on bicycles pushed protesters back to let the car pass.
St. Louis is one of eight cities where the operation has been announced.
The operation was first launched July 8 in Kansas City. Sometimes referred to as Operation LeGend, it was named in honor of 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was fatally shot in June while asleep in his Kansas City home.
Officials announced July 22 it would be expanded to Chicago and Albuquerque. Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee were added to the list July 29. Memphis then was added along with St. Louis.
The St. Louis announcement follows a series of anti-crime initiatives. In 2018, gun prosecutions doubled over the year before. Federal prosecutors also made a list of the area’s so-called “top shooters” and pursued them using various strategies. In January 2019, Jensen and Schmitt said prosecutors from Schmitt’s office would be loaned to Jensen to pursue violent crime as part of their Safer Streets initiative.
Critics say that federal and state officials, including Parson and President Donald Trump, are trying to shift the public’s focus to violent crime instead of an economy devastated by the coronavirus pandemic and a series of failures to adequately contain the spread of the disease.
The FBI also announced Thursday a $25,000 reward for information on the fatal shooting of Trina’ty Riley, 18, and her son Kayden Johnson on April 30, 2019.
Jensen said that Riley appeared to have grabbed her son and hidden in a closet, where both were found dead, Kayden in Riley’s arms.
Anyone with information about the crime is asked to call the local FBI office at 314-389-2500, the FBI tip line at 800-CALL-FBI or via CrimeStoppers at 866-371-TIPS.