Who invited the Feds?

A federal officer wearing a gas mask
A federal officer wearing a gas mask stands under a sign that reads ‘Resist Fascism’ during a protest against racial injustice and police brutality in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland. (Photo by Nathan Howard/ZUMA Wire)

What is the proper role of the federal government in local law enforcement activity? Two different programs being pursued by the Trump administration highlight the potential benefits and some real concerns that can come from such involvements.

Much of the nation is watching Portland, Oregon, where federal intervention, under the name Operation Diligent Valor, has intensified weeks-long Black Lives Matter protests. At the same time, another federal initiative, called Operation Legend, designed to help local law enforcement address rising homicide rates, appears to be getting a more welcome reception from local authorities.

Operation Legend is named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was shot and killed in his sleep last month in Kansas City, Missouri. In response to that tragedy — but also in recognition of the mounting number of unsolved murders in many U.S. cities — Kansas City was the first place to receive more than 100 agents from the FBI, U.S. Marshals, Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to help state and local law enforcement investigate these crimes. The key word here is “help.” And, to the extent federal personnel can assist local law enforcement, with the consent of local authorities, that is a sensible idea.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton D. Lucas (D) was initially skeptical about the idea, but later warmed to it, on the condition that the Feds stick to helping to solve violent crime. “Operation Legend should focus on tackling violent crime in our city with federal investigators providing support to our police department in unsolved homicide and non-fatal shooting investigations,” he said.

Other skeptics are concerned, in part because they see that Operation Diligent Valor is unwelcome in Portland, where local authorities are increasingly angered by federal involvement in local protests.

In Portland, armed Department of Homeland Security agents have been dispatched for the declared purpose of defending federal property against what the president has described as “anarchists and left-wing extremists.” And somehow, the protection of federal property has morphed into confronting civilians with militarized force and pulling citizens off the street and into unmarked minivans for what the DHS says is questioning. Ken Cuccinelli, the former lieutenant governor of Virginia and the current acting deputy secretary of DHS, told NPR that the snatch and grab actions were done to keep officers safe and away from crowds and to move detainees to a “safe location for questioning.” But others see it much differently, and are concerned about federal overreach.

No Oregon state or local leader asked for federal help in dealing with protesters. As such, the incursion into Portland under the guise of “protecting federal property” smacks of an authoritarian intervention that seems to have made things worse rather than better.

Restraint is in order. Federal involvement needs to be limited, constrained and fully in consultation with local authorities. As with Operation Legend, when the federal government has resources local authorities need, they will ask for it.

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