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‘We Don’t Need More Cops; We Need Better Cops.’ Why Chicagoans Are Skeptical of Federal Agents in the Fight Against Gun Violence

17 minute read

The trouble began, as too often it does in Chicago, with a gun.

On a humid afternoon, on Aug. 9, a woman called 911 to report that a man in a red hat and shirt was starting a fight at Moran Park in Englewood, a predominantly Black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. There were children playing nearby, she warned, and he had a gun. At 2:38 p.m., four Chicago police officers in an unmarked Ford SUV rolled past the park, where they spotted a man matching the caller’s description. When they flipped on their lights, he ran. The chase led down an alley, where the suspect fired at least eight shots at two officers sprinting after him, according to prosecutors. The cops returned fire. The suspect fell to the ground, then stood back up and disappeared into an abandoned lot.

As the officers hunted for him, the radios clipped to their bulletproof vests crackled to life: a gunshot victim needed help at a house nearby. The police headed to a powder blue bungalow, where they saw a trail of blood leading from the foot of the front door, through the house and down to the basement. There, police say, they found the suspect, blood seeping from wounds in his cheek and abdomen. The man, later identified as 20-year-old Latrell Allen, was taken into custody and sent to a hospital for treatment.

It didn’t take long for news of the shooting to circulate as yet another example of racial injustice at the hands of police. Tempers flared, particularly in the South Side and West Side communities, where a legacy of segregation, police discrimination, failed schools and misguided public-housing policy have thwarted advancement of Black families for generations. That night, for more than three hours, hundreds of looters smashed windows and carried away armfuls of jewelry, clothes and electronics from retail stores, first on the South Side, then farther north, into downtown shopping districts, including the city’s Magnificent Mile.

When the sun rose on Monday, Aug. 10, shattered glass carpeted sidewalks, trash billowed down major streets, and police stood guard in riot gear on corners. In an interview the next day with TIME, Mayor Lori Lightfoot laid the blame for the chaos not on protesters but on organized criminal operatives taking advantage of an emotional moment to strike. “It was a planned attack,” the mayor declared.

The cryptic allegation was lent credence by the person making it. Elected in 2019 as the first Black woman and openly gay person to serve as Chicago’s mayor, Lightfoot has a history of independence and a balanced background in criminal justice, having served as a federal prosecutor and led two bodies that police the city’s law enforcement. Where some saw mindless violence, she observed elements of preparation “with U-Haul trucks and cargo vans and sophisticated equipment used to cut metal.”

Riots may look alike, especially from a distance. But locals close to the ground, including mayors, are in position to tell the difference between damage done by a protest that’s spun out of control — and by those simply using social unrest as cover for personal gain.

As he seeks re-election as a law-and-order candidate, President Donald Trump has seized upon violent crime in Democrat-led cities as a problem only he and the federal government can fix. On July 22, he expanded Operation Legend, the plan to “surge” hundreds of federal agents into U.S. cities experiencing what he called “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.” After decades of declining crime, cities across the U.S. are experiencing a spike in shootings and homicides this summer. No city has been hit worse than Chicago. In July alone, 565 people were shot — at least 63 of them juveniles.

But while Operation Legend, which has deployed agents from the FBI, DEA and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in nine cities, offers critical expertise to solve crimes, it is irrelevant to the deeper systemic issues that contribute to the violence, such as poverty, underfunded public schools and structural racism. These matters may be of secondary importance to a President running for re-election who is brazenly attempting to stoke fears of suburban voters by associating race with violence.

“If tamping down violence were a policing problem, it would’ve been solved decades ago in Chicago,” says Elce Redmond, 56, a community organizer from the South Side’s Bronzeville neighborhood. “We don’t need more cops; we need better cops.”

That leaves officials like Lightfoot where they were before Trump waded in: looking for real solutions. She recognizes the city is at an inflection point brought on by the pandemic, the ensuing economic paralysis, and the widening gulf of suspicion between the Black community and her police force. “The question is, How do we find opportunity out of even these very dark days?” Lightfoot asks. “And what do we do to band together? Because — it sounds clichéd, but it is so true — we won’t survive this moment. We will not thrive. We will not move beyond, get stronger and better, if we don’t unite.”

Less than two years in office, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot faces a surge of gun violence
Less than two years in office, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot faces a surge of gun violenceSebastián Hidalgo for TIME

Every time somebody is murdered in Chicago, Oji Eggleston’s Android phone vibrates with a text. As executive director with Chicago Survivors, a nonprofit that provides services to the families of homicide victims in the city, he gets a message generated by a Chicago police reporting system that alerts him to another grieving family. “I receive the name, gender, age and location of every single homicide victim,” he says. “They come at all hours of the day, nearly every day.”

Eggleston’s organization guides each family through the complicated processes that go with caring for a dead loved one: what to do at the medical examiner’s office, what to ask at the funeral parlor and how to pay for it all. But it’s the city’s cycle of violence that drives the need for Chicago Survivors. “When families are grieving and they don’t receive the necessary resources in a timely manner, that grief can turn to anger and that anger can turn to retaliation,” Eggleston says. “So that’s where we look to provide the violence interruption.”

No challenge has proved more vexing to Lightfoot during her first full year in office than stopping this grim tide. The 443 homicides recorded in Chicago through July were a 53% increase over a year earlier. (New York City, with three times the population, had just 244 murders.) It’s difficult to find a corner in Chicago’s South and West sides not in some way affected by gang violence. Police say there are 117,000 gang members across the city, which counts 55 known gangs. Officers in Chicago routinely confiscate more illegal guns than those in New York City and Los Angeles combined. Now, during the pandemic, gun sales are hitting record highs across the country. FBI background checks, a proxy to track sales, have surged.

Chicago has no gun shops in the city and no background-check loopholes for private sales. And yet so far this year, Chicago police have seized more than 6,400 guns, a pace set to match the 10,000 confiscated last year. A 2017 study found that some 60% of guns used in crimes come from states like Wisconsin, Mississippi and Indiana. “They have very different sensibilities about guns than we do here in Chicago,” Lightfoot says. “You can literally drive over the border into Indiana and get military-grade weapons in any quantity that your money will buy. And they bring them back to Chicago.”

The fourth of July weekend in Chicago was particularly gruesome. There were 87 people shot across the city. Among the 17 people killed was Tyrone Long, 33. He was outside with friends when a man riding in a blue SUV opened fire. Shot several times in the chest, he died at a nearby hospital. “It wasn’t like he just died or got hit by a bus,” says Linda Long, his mother. “Someone took his life. And it really hurts my soul that my son is not here.”

Tyrone, nicknamed Boomer by his father, was the second oldest of Linda’s four boys. He was a cook, just like her, and the father of an 8-year-old daughter, Zhuri. He volunteered time at his aunt’s antiviolence organization, Sacred Ground Ministries, where he counseled young people about the risks of getting involved in gangs and drugs. His cousin Eric Williams, 25, was killed by gun violence in 2012. Detectives haven’t called for weeks about Tyrone’s murder. “No one has ever got caught for my nephew’s death, and it ain’t looking good on finding Tyrone’s killer,” Linda says. “Nobody is listening. When are they going to listen? When are they going to hear us crying out for help? When?”

To say the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has a trust problem in Black neighborhoods is a gross understatement. The department’s long, troubled history with communities of color spans generations. For decades, long before George Floyd’s death, waves of demonstrations routinely choked city streets to denounce an institution seen as more akin to an occupying force than committed public servants.

A 2017 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation found officers in the city had acted with a “pattern and practice of excessive force,” disproportionately targeting people of color in stops, searches, arrests and shootings, including the notorious 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. In 2019, the DOJ and the city agreed to police-reform agreements enforced by a judge, known as a consent decree, that would address civil rights abuses the probe brought to light.

One year after being elected, Lightfoot hired as superintendent the former Dallas police chief David Brown, renowned for his earnest efforts to bridge the gap between cops and communities of color. “I’m going to go back to what I believe has been the most promising aspect of policing in the last 20 years — community-oriented policing,” Brown says. “We are all safer when we work together, when we trust each other, when the relationship is strong. Even when we have mistakes made by police, we shouldn’t let our missteps or past indiscretions prevent us from moving forward together.”

That takes an investment of his officers’ time inside neighborhoods, going block by block, meeting people and building trust, Brown says. The city increased the number of cops on the streets, spent more than $7 million to expand local organizations’ antiviolence outreach and launched a new 300-officer unit to participate with community-relations programs, including food drives and church gatherings.

The head of Chicago’s police union initially celebrated Trump’s approach of sending additional federal officers. But community activists ask how a couple hundred agents from out of town can meaningfully augment a police force of 13,000, the nation’s second largest.

“The false pretense here is that we can inject a number of people from three-letter agencies and that’s going to fix all the problems,” says Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois. “That kind of thinking has never really gotten anywhere and, in fact, has driven further wedges between the police and communities.”

Lightfoot agrees, recalling the chaos federal agents provoked in Portland, Ore. As additional agents from the FBI, DEA and ATF began arriving in Chicago, Lightfoot detected more national politics than local impact. “A lot of rhetoric and hype,” she said, adding: “The jury’s out as to whether or not they’re actually going to be helpful.”

Linda Long’s son Tyrone, and the father of an 8-year-old daughter, Zhuri, was killed on July 4 in a drive-by shooting.TIME MAGAZINE

On July 27, ATF agents in Chicago popped the trunk of a midnight blue 2015 Dodge Charger and found seven handguns lying inside. According to court documents, the guns belonged to Benjamin Cortez-Gomez, 27, a convicted felon nicknamed Bennie Blanco. Agents had tracked Cortez-Gomez after he allegedly purchased the weapons in the Indianapolis area and brought them into Chicago for resale.

Now he had been arrested, and his guns sat on a gray countertop inside a modified tractortrailer parked outside a police facility on Chicago’s West Side. The $1.3 million mobile crime lab and the personnel who came with it are part of Trump’s Operation Legend. ATF technician Jill Jacobson selects a black Glock pistol, carefully loads it with 9-mm ammunition and inserts the gun’s muzzle into a red metal tank called a “snail trap.” She squeezes the trigger. A muffled pop. Then another.

Jacobson collects the two spent cartridges and walks them to a workstation on the other end of the air-conditioned trailer. A colleague briefly studies the cartridges under a microscope, then uploads their images into a national database. The firing pin and explosion inside each gun leave behind tiny markings, like fingerprints, which can be matched to previous crimes. There are no hits on these guns, which Kristen deTineo, ATF’s special agent in charge in Chicago, takes as good news. “They were taken off the street before a crime took place,” she says. “That’s our goal.”

It’s not unusual for federal agents to be working alongside local police in U.S. cities. DEA agents routinely play a role on drug-trafficking cases, and ATF agents in gun cases. What’s unusual is the politics: Trump and his Administration talk about Operation Legend as a way to repair Democratled cities. That leads mayors like Lightfoot to question whether the goal is to help local law enforcement or help Trump get re-elected.

Operation Legend takes its name from LeGend Taliferro, a 4-year-old boy shot and killed as he slept at his home in Kansas City, Mo., at the end of June. It has thus far expanded to Chicago; Albuquerque, N.M.; Cleveland; Detroit; Indianapolis; Milwaukee; Memphis; and St. Louis. The decision to add a city to the list is ultimately signed off on by Attorney General William Barr.

U.S. Attorney John Lausch of the Northern District of Illinois says bringing in agents to work closely with local police “provides critical help” on stopping and deterring crime from taking place. Prosecutors at the federal level are capable of pursuing charges that carry stiffer penalties than at the county level. For instance, unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, one of the charges Cortez-Gomez faces for allegedly having seven guns in his trunk, is punishable by up to 10 years in federal prison. Additionally, convicts must serve at least 85% of their sentence, which can be in a prison located in a state on the other side of the country. “In the federal system, we have very strong sentences for violent crimes, and that helps us get further information from these offenders. Criminals know that,” Barr said at an Aug. 19 press conference, adding that Operation Legend had netted 1,485 arrests thus far. “Our work is just getting started.”

And yet even though Lausch’s office has prosecuted more gun crimes each year for the past three years, gun violence continues to rise. Community activists, organizers and civil rights groups worry that the arrival of feds is not making things better. The agents are not subject to the same level of oversight as local police on matters like use of force and body cameras. Not long after the Operation Legend announcement, hundreds of protesters gathered for a rally near where ATF agents set up their trailer. For several days, protesters assembled outside, calling for a decrease in the $1.6 billion CPD budget and for the money to be invested instead in long-neglected communities.

Operation Legend sparked protests in Albuquerque. Mayors in several cities say they have serious reservations about its impact and intent. Quinton Lucas, mayor of Kansas City, where the program first rolled out, thought Trump purposefully muddled the use of federal forces in Portland and the deployment of agents under Operation Legend to project authority during instability. “It’s a culture war,” Lucas says. “It’s about cities, and cities being out of control and Trump’s going to have something that helps, whether it helps or not. And we’re pawns in this game.”

ATF technician Jill Jacobson is a member of a team of specialists sent to Chicago as part of the Operation Legend task force
ATF technician Jill Jacobson is a member of a team of specialists sent to Chicago as part of the Operation Legend task forceSebastián Hidalgo for TIME

Chicago’s problems are stubborn, and speak to the tension at the heart of public safety, as officials across the country address questions of race and policing. Lightfoot came into office intent on providing more opportunities to neighborhoods of color, which activists say know best how to prevent violence. But the mayor has been frustrated by the criminal activity already taking place.

“To see young people who are Black act in the way that they acted, like they had every right to take somebody else’s property — and not just the big guys who have lots of insurance but the little shop owners in neighborhoods all across the city — they have so little respect for all the sacrifice that people who look like them put into forming a business, all their hurdles, all their challenges that small businesses have,” Lightfoot says. “Particularly small businesses of color, without any regard for not only hurting those business owners but hurting also employees, who also are generally employees of color. That offends me to the core.”

And by its nature, the drama of crime overwhelms all else, including the straits that confine many of the city’s poor. In June, the city’s unemployment rate was 15.6%, significantly higher than the national rate but higher still outside wealthy North Side neighborhoods, where single-digit jobless rates skew the city-wide figure, analysts say. Severe poverty, insecurity and childhood hunger are geographically concentrated in the West and South sides.

Many Black families, who have given up hope or managed to pull themselves out of poverty, have moved away. In 2019, for the fourth year in a row, Chicago saw its population decline. Nearly 50,000 Black residents have left over the past five years.

“There are parts of our city that haven’t financially recovered since the 2008 recession,” says Liz Dozier, a former high school principal who runs Chicago Beyond, a nonprofit that seeks to alleviate economic pressures within low-income communities. “The pandemic has just devastated communities even more.” Chicago Beyond has invested more than $30 million in organizations that target at-risk youth and young adults. Since the onset of the pandemic, Chicago Beyond has been running weekly food drives across the city. But quarantines and lockdowns have restricted access to churches, schools and community centers.

Dozier argues that with its hardworking ethos and multiculturalism, Chicago still qualifies as a microcosm of America. Its problems may be deep-seated, she says, but they are the problems the country must confront if we are to move forward. And the starting point in any discussion is the question of security — for everyone.

Despite economic and racial disparities, the city is interconnected in ways that are not always apparent. On Jewelers Row along Wabash Avenue in Chicago’s central business district, some small-business owners saw their entire livelihood wiped away in this month’s mass looting. Mohammad Ashiq, the 60-year-old owner of Watch Clinic, entered his watch-repair shop to discover that all his inventory, some $900,000 worth, had been stolen from his glass showcases. Hundreds of watches for sale and those he was fixing for customers were missing. None of it was insured. “It is my entire life,” he says as a nearby L train rumbles above his store. “Forty-two years in this business. I am left with nothing but my health.”

His fate had been decided less than 24 hours earlier, less than 10 miles away, when a Chicagoan spotted a man with a gun.

— With reporting by Tessa Berenson, Leslie Dickstein and Mariah Espada

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Write to W.J. Hennigan / Chicago at william.hennigan@time.com