IN AUGUST, 40 federal agents arrived in Memphis. Some were already on the ground by the time U.S. Attorney Michael Dunavant announced the onset of Operation Legend and the city became, along with St. Louis, the seventh to be targeted by the Justice Department’s heavy-handed initiative to reduce violent crime. Many of the agents are on temporary assignment, working in collaboration with police; nearly half will relocate by November. But they will leave behind a city flush with grant money for local police — and heightened surveillance capabilities.
In Memphis, organizers have long battled police surveillance. The fight came to a head in 2017, when a lawsuit against the city of Memphis revealed years of close surveillance of Black Lives Matter activists and union organizers. “We knew we were being watched and monitored and surveilled,” said Hunter Demster, an activist who was tracked on social media by MPD. The suit was successful, and in 2018, a federal judge ordered an independent monitor to oversee policing in the city. Now, activists there say that Operation Legend is a serious blow.
Operation Legend and its December precursor, Operation Relentless Pursuit, are both funding surveillance technology in cities across the country. Through Operation Legend, Memphis and four other cities received grants for gunshot detection technology, which lines cities with sensors to detect gunfire, despite longstanding concerns about its efficacy. Other more opaque grants from the Justice Department, like a $1.4 million grant to Shelby County, which surrounds Memphis, in April and a $1 million grant in July to the city of Cleveland, are to be used in part for “technological solutions” or “support” for investigations.
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