Operation Legend draws praise, criticism as law enforcement works to combat steep rise in violent crime

The federal initiative started in Cleveland in July.

Operation Legend draws praise, criticism as law enforcement works to combat rise in violent crime

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Violent crimes, including homicides, are on the rise in Cleveland. Data from the Cleveland Police Department shows a 34 percent increase in homicides this year, as of early September, compared to the same period a year ago. Felonious assaults are up 14 percent.

The uptick in violent crimes is why the U.S. Justice Department said it was sending additional agents and resources to the city under Operation Legend.

The initiative is taking place in several U.S. cities including Kansas City and Chicago. It expanded to Cleveland in July.

More than 25 agents from the FBI, ATF, DEA and U.S. Marshals Service have been permanently assigned to Cleveland — at least for the next several years — to work with local police. The mission is to reduce gang violence, illegal firearms and drugs.

Operation Legend draws praise, criticism as law enforcement works to combat rise in violence: part 2

Government officials consider it to be an extension of “Operation Relentless Pursuit,” which started in 2019.

“Its mission is to save lives, solve crimes and take violent offenders off the streets before they can claim more victims,” said U.S. Attorney General William Barr, during a news conference in July.

Barr said there’s a number of factors he believes are connected to the rise in crime.

“I think some of it may be pent up aggression by state and local quarantining orders. I definitely feel a lot of it is due to the premature nature of dangerous criminals by courts and by prosecutors. And I think it’s also related to the efforts that we’ve recently seen to demonize police,” Barr said in the July news conference.

As part of Operation Legend, the U.S. Justice Department awarded the city of Cleveland an $8 million grant to allow the police department to hire 30 additional officers. The new hires will replace veteran officers selected to work with federal law enforcement task forces.

As of late September, Operation Legend has resulted in more than 70 people being arrested and slapped with federal charges. Forty-two people have been charged with narcotics offenses. Twenty-six people have firearms charges. Four people have been charged with violent crimes.

In August, Operation Legend was credited for the high-profile arrest of Jamell Gaines for the murders of Curtis Legg and 17-year-old Eric Hakizimana, who had escaped war-torn Congo for a new life in Cleveland.

Communities where the initiative is happening has seen praise and criticism.

Veronica Howard's son, James, was murdered in 2011. His case remains unsolved. Anyone with information can leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County at 216-252-7463.
Veronica Howard's son, James, was murdered in 2011. His case remains unsolved. Anyone with information can leave an anonymous tip with Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County at 216-252-7463. (Source: WOIO)

“Anyone who opposes anything that can help us at this crisis point has a problem,” said Veronica Howard.

Howard’s son, James Howard Jr., was murdered Christmas Eve 2011. The aspiring artist was 25 years old. Police found him in an abandoned home on Cleveland’s East Side.

Howard said her son was not one to follow the crowd and cared deeply about his Black community.

“He wanted to be loved and have love among our community. I remember he called on his birthday that year and said, ‘Mom, I’m getting old,’” Howard recalled. “I said, ‘James you have a lifetime to live.’”

Now, the mother of three is left with only her memories and photos of James through the years.

James Howard Jr. was murdered in 2011. His body was found in an abandoned home in Cleveland. His case remains unsolved.
James Howard Jr. was murdered in 2011. His body was found in an abandoned home in Cleveland. His case remains unsolved. (Source: Facebook)

“It was the worst day of my life, and it continues to be the worst day of my life,” Howard said. “And that is what mothers daily experience in their neighborhood, in America, especially in brown and Black communities. We are losing our children. They’re being murdered. It’s unacceptable. It is unacceptable. I’m a mom. We want justice, and we want it now. We have to get the killers off the street, and that is not an option. That is not an option.”

Howard said the help is long overdue in a city that’s struggled in recent memory to hire police officers and properly staff departments, including the homicide unit.

“You feel like bringing additional resources to the city of Cleveland is going to make a difference in some way?” asked 19 News Anchor/Reporter Damon Maloney.

“Bringing Operation Legend to me, in my perspective, says that not only will communities get better. But our policing will get better as well,” Howard said.

Criticism of Operation Legend has been front and center. Some in the community have expressed worries over citizens' rights being trampled by heavy-handed police tactics.

Several groups, including Black Lives Matters-Cleveland and Cleveland Peace Action, wrote their concerns in a petition to members of Cleveland City Council.

The petition said the city is already “over-policed” and that “the most violent and disproportionate impact on Black and brown people comes from policing.”

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams addressed a multitude of concerns during several public meetings.

“These are not federal troops coming to the city of Cleveland. These are investigators,” Williams said. “They are not sent here to assist us in any way, shape or form with any First Amendment activity … any protest, a gathering—that’s not their mission. What you’re seeing now is the second part of what we started … basically, a strategy that targets individuals committing violent crime in the city of Cleveland. Don’t do the crime. If you do it, we’re going to try and track you down with all the resources to bear that we have. And if you think things are too hot in Cleveland, then get out of Cleveland.”

It’s no secret, the federal operation comes at a time of increased tension between police and the communities they serve.

Protests, some of which have included people who’ve carried out violence, have happened in Cleveland and other U.S. cities. Demonstrators have continued to voice concerns with what they consider to be injustices and systemic racism in policing and the judicial system. High-profile cases, including the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, have fueled frustrations and demands for reforms.

Veronica said obtaining progress on issues of police brutality, socio-economic disparities within communities of color, better community policing and increasing diversity among law enforcement ranks cannot and should not be ignored. But she said that ongoing work should not derail efforts to curb crime.

Gregory Terrell, president of the non-profit Society 4 Non-Violent Change, welcomes the additional federal resources but said they must be matched with other investments to end a cycle of crime.

“We want a police presence in our community. We want the help, but we also want a justice process that heals,” Terrell said. “What about the jobs? What about you know the educational programs? What about helping mental health patients? How did it all (crime) begin? Let’s go back. Let’s fix it. Let’s fix the problem.”

Khalid Samad, the president and CEO of the non-profit, Peace in The Hood, shares similar views.

“If resources are going to come in, then you know you don’t want to turn it down. Consequently, is how do we format that in a community-policing construct,” Samad said.

Both Terrell and Samad said organizations like theirs often get overlooked and don’t receive ample funding despite their ability to thwart problems and transform lives.

Both organizations do a variety of work in the community including violence interruption work and programming for youth.

Samad said people of the community are uniquely able to connect with residents.

“The change has to come within the hearts and minds of the people,” Samad said.

19 News spoke to Samad outside of the Cuyahoga County Division of Senior & Adult Services building on Kinsman Road.

A mural on the side of it features three young kids with the words, “Lead Like Harriet, Dream Like Martin, Rise like Maya” under them. It’s a tribute to inspirational Black leaders. A man who was once headed down a troubled path did the mural.

“Now he’s evolved, and this is how he makes his living,” Samad said.

Veronica can only dream of what her son would have accomplished in his life.

“You’ve taken it upon yourself to fight for justice for others. Where did you find the grit to carry on that type of mission,” Maloney asked Veronica.

She said, “When you’re raised to believe that God is in control … it was possible for me to get back up after something so horrible put me down and to say that I do not want to see another mother go through that notification day. Another vigil where anyone else’s child is taken by murder. it is unacceptable.”

Despite what she’s been through, Veronica is still hopeful for equality, justice and peace in Cleveland.

She knows her faith and is determined to get justice for her fallen son.

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