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Residents Split On Presence Of Federal Agents In Kansas City, Mo.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hundreds of federal agents are arriving in Kansas City and are already starting to make arrests. They are part of an effort to fight violent crime that some there wholeheartedly embrace. Others fear their presence will devolve into a confrontation like the one playing out in Portland. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: There have been at least 107 homicides in Kansas City so far this year, on pace to break a record. Racial justice activist Lora McDonald is standing outside the apartment complex where one of the youngest victims, LeGend Taliferro, was killed by a stray bullet in his bedroom last month.

LORA MCDONALD: A young 4-year-old child was shot and killed in the midst of the community violence that we've been seeing for a while in Kansas City. It's tragic.

MORRIS: The child's name is now attached to an initiative sending around 200 more federal agents to Kansas City. It's a plan President Donald Trump touts will blunt the spike in homicides here.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We will be fighting every day to save the lives of America's children. Under Operation LeGend, we will also soon send federal law enforcement to other cities that need help.

MORRIS: Chicago and Albuquerque are next; other cities have been mentioned. McDonald says a surge of federal law enforcement hitting town evokes disturbing images of baton-wielding men decked out in body armor and gas masks.

MCDONALD: Yeah. I think when 200 federal agents showed up here, we certainly are thinking about the people that were snatched off sidewalks over the past week in Portland.

TIM GARRISON: This is not Portland. This has nothing to do with anybody's exercise of their right to protest.

MORRIS: Tim Garrison is the U.S. attorney for western Missouri. He says the agents deployed under Operation LeGend will work largely behind the scenes, processing evidence and tracking down fugitives.

GARRISON: These are not troops. These are professional criminal investigators and analysts who are coming here to help us investigate violent crimes.

MORRIS: Federal law enforcement assisting local police is nothing new. There've been hundreds of federal agents here for years. But the election year context is certainly different. President Trump has begun campaigning on a law-and-order platform. He insists that civil rights protests and proposals to reallocate police funding - and for that matter, Democrats in control of Kansas City - are triggering the current crime wave. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas says that's just not true.

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QUINTON LUCAS: And so to suggest otherwise is to try to not just dog whistle but, frankly, dog bark about racial politics. It's to try to divide our community and our country. It's wholly unnecessary, and it doesn't help us solve a single violent crime incident.

MORRIS: Others in Kansas City, like activist and lawyer Stacy Shaw, worry the operation could traumatize some living in inner-city neighborhoods.

STACY SHAW: A lot of federal resources are being spent locking up people in Black and brown communities, which are already overpoliced.

MORRIS: Shaw says it's going to take things like better schools and well-paying jobs to help break the cycle of violence here.

DA-NEARLE CLARKE: This here is where we had the funeral for LeGend Taliferro. You know, there was a whole lot of hurt in this room that day. And I myself felt it. It was a very sad day.

MORRIS: Da-Nearle Clarke points to a vast room set with hundreds of purple chairs, the casket front and center here at Serenity Funeral Home. For Clarke, it's personal. He's known many of the murder victims memorialized here.

CLARKE: I support Operation LeGend 100% because there is a whole lot of homicides that's happening now, and it needs to stop.

MORRIS: The key question, of course, is how to stop it. And the answer is far more complicated than what many see as a politically motivated crackdown on crime. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.