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GAO: Agencies Should Improve Reporting and Review of Less-Lethal Force

Federal agencies deployed law enforcement and other personnel during protests following George Floyd’s death. Many used less-lethal force—tactics and weapons that are not intended to cause death or serious injury, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has examined how agencies reviewed their use of this force in Washington, D.C., and Portland, OR. Several federal agencies deployed personnel to Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, in response to the demonstrations. 

In Washington, D.C., at least 12 federal agencies deployed, collectively, up to about 9,300 personnel per day in response to the demonstrations from May 26, 2020, through June 15, 2020. Of these, six agencies reported a total of over 120 less-lethal force incidents during this period, including physical tactics, batons, chemical spray, and chemical and kinetic impact munitions. Three of these agencies (Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Park Police, and U.S. Secret Service) reported using force as part of the effort to clear Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020.

In Portland, Oregon, at least five federal agencies deployed, collectively, up to about 325 personnel per day in response to the demonstrations from June 26, 2020, through September 30, 2020. Four agencies reported a total of over 700 less-lethal force incidents during this period, including batons, chemical spray, chemical and kinetic impact munitions, diversionary devices, and electronic control devices.

Most of the 10 federal agencies that GAO reviewed during its review have less-lethal force policies that apply to demonstrations. All 10 agencies provide their personnel with less-lethal force training that varied by the agencies’ mission. The agencies reported that they equip their personnel on various types of less-lethal force. Further, all 10 agencies have policies and training related to ensuring that their use of less-lethal force minimizes unintended injuries. 

GAO notes in its December 15 report that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is the only agency without a less-lethal force policy that applies to demonstrations. Its policy focuses exclusively on inmates in federal institutions. However, in recent years, BOP deployments beyond its institutions have occurred more often in response to civil disturbances and natural disasters. Consequently, GAO believes that updating its policy to address such situations will help ensure that it addresses all potential use of force situations facing its personnel.

The watchdog’s review found that eight of the 10 agencies used less-lethal force during the selected deployments. For those eight agencies, reporting requirements varied and reports often did not include basic information.

GAO said reporting requirements varied among agencies within the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Justice (DOJ), which can impair departmental oversight. In addition, the review found that most agencies’ less-lethal force reporting was missing information that would be useful for determining if the force was applied in accordance with agency policy. Specifically, reports from six agencies— Federal Protective Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Secret Service (USSS), U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), and U.S. Park Police (USPP)—were missing basic information, such as time, location, type of munition used, or circumstances surrounding the use of force. GAO said some reports provided a high-level summary of the day but did not identify which officers used force or the types of force each officer used. The watchdog added that DHS’s oversight over the quality and consistency of use of force reporting was impaired because the department has not established a body to monitor use of force reporting across all of its component agencies, as required by DHS policy.

All 10 agencies had processes to determine if less-lethal force was applied in accordance with agency policy, but some of the eight agencies that reported using less-lethal force during selected deployments did not explicitly document their determinations, GAO said. Specifically, USMS, ICE, and USSS did not document if force was used in accordance with policy. The remaining five agencies that did document less-lethal force determinations—Federal Protective Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection; BOP; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and USPP—found that nearly all of their incidents were in accordance with policy. The remaining incidents were referred to the relevant Offices of the Inspector General or were pending further administrative actions as of July 2021.

New officers from six of 10 agencies receive initial training on less-lethal force at DHS’ Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETC). This includes three DHS agencies, two DOJ agencies, and Interior’s USPP. At FLETC, officers receive a mixture of lectures; laboratory practice sessions; and exercises on physical tactics, batons, chemical sprays, and electronic control devices. The other four agencies—BOP, CBP, FBI, and the National Guard— provide their own initial training on less-lethal force. Following the initial training, all 10 agencies have requirements for ongoing training and certification related to less-lethal force. In addition, all 10 agencies in GAO’s review have policies and training related to ensuring that their use of less-lethal force minimizes unintended injuries for all use of force situations, including demonstrations.

Among the less-lethal force incidents GAO identified during selected deployments, CBP’s review board found five CBP personnel used force that was not in accordance with the CBP use of force policy. According to CBP, in each case, the board determined the actual use of force was reasonable and justified. However, the board determined that CBP personnel used force that was not in accordance with policy due to insufficiently documented training records or the use of unapproved devices. CBP told GAO at the time of the review that it was in the process of updating its training programs.

Agencies have learned lessons from the protests and their handling of the situations. For example, following the 2020 protests, CBP’s Office of Field Operations began requiring all of its new officers in January 2021 to receive training in mobile field force operations, which includes training on crowd behaviors, crowd management and dispersion tactics, and instruction for the use of riot control helmets and gas masks. A similar course has been established for U.S. Border Patrol officers.

Meanwhile, in July 2021, ICE officials stated that the agency had updated its training curricula for the use of chemical, kinetic impact, and mixed munitions after a review of lessons learned and best practices from law enforcement teams who responded to the 2020 demonstrations. ICE also updated its use of force reporting system in April 2021 to better capture information related to crowd size for use of force incidents. According to ICE officials, the prior reporting system did not have an option for officers to report an unknown number of subjects when there was a large crowd. The update added a new field so that officers could specify whether a crowd was involved in the use of force incident and whether the number of subjects in the crowd was known or unknown. 

GAO is making several recommendations, including that:

  • BOP update its use of force policy to include demonstrations occurring near and far from federal institutions;
  • DHS and DOJ develop standards for their component agencies on the types of less-lethal force that should be reported when used;
  • DHS develop standards for its component agencies on the types of information that must be reported for each use of force incident;
  • DHS establish monitoring mechanisms to oversee the quality, consistency, and completeness of use of force reporting across all DHS component agencies;
  • USMS and USPP develop specific reporting requirements on the types of information that must be reported for each use of force incident; and
  • ICE, USMS, and USSS modify policies and procedures to document their determinations on whether less-lethal force was used in accordance with agency policy.

The agencies have concurred and in many cases already started work on addressing the recommendations.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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