DHS, DOJ once again facing pushback after sending federal officers to racial justice protests.
Deployments of federal law enforcement officers to Portland, Oregon, in an attempt to quell protests for racial justice there have gained increasing attention and pushback from local and federal officials, but the Trump administration continues to defend the approach as necessary to protect federal property against lawlessness.
Videos and local reports in recent weeks have shown unmarked federal officers—deployed from Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Marshals Service and possibly other agencies—taking aggressive actions against protesters in Portland, who have been active for nearly two months. The officers have gained particular notoriety after reports and footage surfaced of the officers arresting onlookers and protesters alike. The Homeland Security Department first deployed the officers around the July 4th holiday.
Gov. Kate Brown, D-Ore, and Mayor Ted Wheeler, D-Portland, have denounced the federal presence, saying it has only exacerbated the at times violent nature of the protests and calling on DHS and other agencies to withdraw their officers. President Trump and administration officials have repeatedly defended their actions, however, citing a law that allows for the deployment of federal officers to support the Federal Protective Service in defending federal buildings.
While Trump and DHS continue to refer to protesters as “violent anarchists,” nearly all the alleged crimes of which the administration has accused them involve graffiti or other damage to federal buildings or fencing put up to protect them. In some cases, DHS said protesters have shined laser pointers at federal officers and launched projectiles including fireworks at them. DHS has made three arrests for assaulting a federal officer.
“The facts don't lie and the facts are that these violent anarchists and extremists were violent well before DHS surged federal assets into Portland,” acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf said on Fox News on Monday, pushing back on local officials’ claim that his department was making the problem worse. “What we've seen is over 50 nights of violent activity targeting federal facilities and federal law enforcement officers and it needs to stop.”
Wolf’s comments followed Wheeler on CNN saying DHS personnel should be restricted to federal property or leave the city. Ken Cuccinelli, currently acting as DHS deputy secretary, also told CNN on Monday federal deployments could expand beyond Portland. The federal government had gathered intelligence about "planned attacks on federal facilities" in Portland before deploying there and would do the same elsewhere if necessary, he explained.
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.
Democratic lawmakers in Oregon and across the country have condemned the federal deployments and arrests. 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.
The controversy follows similar outcry in Washington, D.C. after an array of DHS 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 Trump’s photo opportunity on June 1 at a church near the White House.
Federal officials in Portland lack proper training for the incidents they encountered there, according to an internal DHS memorandum obtained by the New York Times. DHS subsequently denied the report, despite the clear language in the memo. FLEOA's Cosme also disputed the claim, saying the officers were part of specialized teams who had received adequate training.
"Reports that these individuals are improperly trained or ill equipped to handle these situations are misguided," he said.
Videos have shown the officers beating protesters with batons, deploying chemical agents to disperse crowds and in at least one case, shooting an individual in the head with a non-lethal round. Several Democratic senators on Monday unveiled legislation that would restrict federal officers deployed for crowd control to areas immediately surrounding federal buildings unless the relevant mayor and governor request their presence. It would also impose new transparency measures.
The American Civil Liberties Union on Friday announced it would sue DHS and the Marshals Service, seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent their personnel from “dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force against journalists or legal observers.” The ACLU previously filed other legal actions against the Trump administration for its crackdown on protesters.
“Under the direction of the Trump administration, federal agents are terrorizing the community, risking lives, and brutally attacking protesters demonstrating against police brutality,” said Kelly Simon, interim legal director with the ACLU of Oregon. “These federal agents must be stopped and removed from our city.”
While local officials said the violence in Portland was under control prior to the federal government's arrival, Trump said in a tweet Sunday the federal government's actions there were necessary due to local failures. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators,” Trump said. “They are missing in action. We must protect federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE.”
Trump on Monday said he was considering doing "something" in additional cities, mentioning Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland.
"We're going to have more federal law enforcement," Trump said. "That, I can tell you."
Wolf pledged that DHS would continue on its current course.
“We're going to investigate and we're going to hold those accountable,” he said. “We’re going to arrest them and hold those accountable that are doing this destruction.”