Watchdogs will probe training and instructions, use of force and other tactics.
The Justice Department’s watchdog will investigate actions taken by federal law enforcement officers in response to racial justice protests in both Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, following high-profile clashes with demonstrators over the last two months.
Justice IG Michael Horowitz announced on Thursday he will investigate use of force and compliance with other laws and regulations in coordination with his counterpart at the Homeland Security Department. Horowitz said he is launching the investigation following congressional requests, a referral from the U.S. Attorney in Oregon and other complaints.
The Trump administration has deployed federal officers to Portland to quell protests there, saying it was necessary to protect federal property from damage and vandalism. Officers deployed from Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service and possibly other agencies have taken aggressive actions, including many arrests, against demonstrators in Portland, who have been active for nearly two months. Tensions have risen since the federal personnel arrived in early July as the officers have repeatedly deployed chemical irritants and violently clashed with protesters.
The controversy follows similar outcry in Washington, D.C., after an array of Homeland Security and Justice Department law enforcement personnel deployed to protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Officers there clashed with protesters, at times violently, most notably prior to President Trump’s photo opportunity on June 1 at a church near the White House.
Horowitz said his investigation will review federal law enforcement actions in both Portland and Washington over the last two months, including the events outside the White House in Lafayette Square.
“The review will include examining the training and instruction that was provided to the DOJ law enforcement personnel; compliance with applicable identification requirements, rules of engagement, and legal authorities; and adherence to DOJ policies regarding the use of less-lethal munitions, chemical agents, and other uses of force,” the IG said.
On Sunday evening, three House committee chairmen—Reps. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y.; Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; and Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who head the committees on the Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight and Reform, respectively—sent a letter to the inspectors general of DHS and Justice asking them to investigate the federal presence in Portland and elsewhere. The lawmakers said the Trump administration was on shaky legal ground and asked the IGs to probe the matter further.
“The attorney general of the United States does not have unfettered authority to direct thousands of federal law enforcement personnel to arrest and detain American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights,” they wrote.
In a letter to those lawmakers, DHS IG Joseph Cuffari confirmed his office would also investigate the incidents, including possible improper detention of protesters. In a letter of his own, Horowitz said the scope of his probe could expand: "If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider including other issues that may arise during the course of the review."
The Trump administration is facing multiple lawsuits over the deployments. Trump and Attorney General William Barr have said they will expand the federal officer presence in cities around the country, starting with 200 officers each to Chicago and Kansas City. Trump administration officials said the operations will differ from those in Portland, as they will serve to fend off standard criminal activity rather than tamp down protests. Agency officials have repeatedly clashed with state and local leaders, who said the officers are acting against their wishes.
An advocacy group representing federal officers echoed Trump administration officials in saying agency employees were being attacked, and local officials were exacerbating the danger. Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said local officials have made the job of federal officials in Portland "increasingly difficult" and their inaction has put citizens and officers alike at risk. He added federal personnel are "being attacked daily."
“FLEOA stands by federal law enforcement officers attempting to end the violence," Cosme said.