U.S. expands deployment of federal agents to Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit

(Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday it would send dozens of law enforcement officers to Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit to fight violent crime, expanding the deployment of federal agents to major cities under a program promoted by President Donald Trump.

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.

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 (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the U.S. Marshals Service Great Lakes Task Force.

In testimony before Congress on Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr stressed that Operation Legend was aimed at "predatory violence like murder and shootings" and was distinct from the controversial deployment of unidentified federal agents to counter protesters in Portland, Oregon.

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

"Operation Legend isn't about protests or politics," he said.

Homicides are nearly 31 percent higher in Detroit, up more than 13 percent in Cleveland, and have risen by 85 percent in Milwaukee this year compared with 2019, the Justice Department said.

Trump, a Republican, has sought to promote a law-and-order message ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election, targeting cities controlled by Democrats. Critics say the administration is seeking to divert attention away from its widely criticized response to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the reasons he is trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in opinion polls.

On Monday six mayors, all Democrats, urged Congress in a letter to halt the deployment of federal forces to their cities, saying it has escalated tensions at anti-racism protests ignited by the death of Floyd, who was Black.

The mayors of Portland, Oregon; Chicago; Seattle, Albuquerque; Kansas City; and Washington signed the letter.

At the same time, Chicago and Detroit's mayors have indicated they would welcome federal help to investigate and prosecute violent crimes as long as the operation does not resemble that in Portland. In the Oregon city, federal agents without identifying badges have been accused of pulling protesters into unmarked vans, a possible violation of their civil rights.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis)