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Troops to deploy in three more US cities as federal forces begin Portland withdrawal

Demonstrators at a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, USA on July 27, 2020.
Demonstrators at a protest against racial inequality and police violence in Portland, USA on July 27, 2020. © Caitlin Ochs, REUTERS

The US Justice Department said on Wednesday it would send dozens of law enforcement officials to Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit to combat violent crime, expanding the deployment of federal agents to major cities under a programme promoted by President Donald Trump.

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The move follows similar deployments to Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri and Albuquerque, New Mexico under what is known as Operation Legend, an initiative launched to address rising crime in some cities as unrest swept the nation after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.

Federal forces deployed in the US city of Portland, rocked by weeks of clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement, will start pulling out of the city on Thursday, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf indicated, meanwhile, that an agreement had been reached for federal forces in downtown Portland to give way to local law enforcement – but warned a full pullout depended on the security situation "significantly" improving.

Brown on Wednesday said federal agents would  begin a “phased withdrawal” from the state’s largest city.

"After my discussions with (Vice President Mike) Pence and others, the federal government has agreed to withdraw federal officers from Portland," she tweeted. 

"They have acted as an occupying force & brought violence. Starting tomorrow, all Customs and Border Protection & ICE officers will leave downtown Portland."

In his statement, Wolf said he and Brown had "agreed to a joint plan to end the violent activity in Portland directed at federal properties and law enforcement officers".

The Trump administration sent armed officers, many wearing combat-like gear, to intervene in Portland after weeks of anti-racism and anti-police protests left a federal courthouse and other buildings marred with graffiti and broken windows.

But the protests have only intensified since federal officers arrived, with Democrats assailing the deployment as a ploy to boost Trump's law-and-order credentials as he seeks reelection.

‘Operation Legend isn't about protests or politics’

Distinct from the operation in Portland to secure the federal courthouse, the deployments to Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri and Albuquerque, New Mexico are being made under Operation Legend, an initiative launched to address spikes in violent crimes like murders, which have risen by nearly 31 percent in Detroit compared to 2019.

Matthew Schneider, the chief federal prosecutor in the part of Michigan that includes Detroit, told a briefing on Wednesday that there would be "no federal troops" deployed to his state to interfere with peaceful protests.

"Operation Legend isn't about protests or politics," Schneider said of the programme, which adds resources to existing arrangements between between federal officials and state and local authorities to prosecute criminals.

The surge in crime has come amid an unprecedented economic recession due to the coronavirus pandemic and widespread anti-racism protests ignited by Floyd's death, although the precise cause of higher crime rates was not clear.

Schneider and ATF Special Agent James Deir said that their agents were, in many cases, seeking "fugitives" in connection to the rising violence. "Part of it is ... people are getting on streets, part of it is unsupervised probation," Deir said.

The operation's expansion includes sending 42 federal agents to Detroit and more than 25 to both Milwaukee and Cleveland, according to the Department of Justice. The agents will come from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the US Marshals Service.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and police chief James Craig on Wednesday released a statement approving Schneider's expansion of the operation on certain conditions. "So long as those staff are used in the continuing effort to enforce federal laws on illegal gun trafficking and gang violence, DPD will continue its strong partnership with those agencies," the statement said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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