Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf meets with federal law enforcement in Portland on July 16, 2020. (DHS photo)

DHS, DOJ IGs Asked to Investigate Actions of Federal Officers at Portland Protests

A trio of House chairman asked the inspectors general at the departments of Homeland Security and Justice to open investigations into the federal law enforcement response against protesters in Portland.

The demonstrators — a mix of peaceful protesters and those who have committed vandalism or thrown objects at officers — have been protesting for more than 50 days against the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. The federal response, including video last week of unidentified masked camouflaged federal officers pulling a protester into an unmarked van, has resulted in growing protests and political outcry as agency leaders defend the officers’ actions.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told CNN today that the presence of the federal officers, which he estimated to be “dozens if not hundreds,” was “actually leading to more violence and more vandalism” in the protest zone. “They’re not wanted here,” Wheeler added. “We haven’t asked them here. In fact, we want them to leave.”

Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley (D) and Ron Wyden (D) and Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D) and Suzanne Bonamici (D) wrote in a Friday letter to Attorney General Bill Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf that the “out of control” tactics include “deploying federal agents without identifying insignia in an apparent effort to evade transparency and accountability, snatching people off the street with no apparent reason for apprehension, and using potentially deadly munitions to harm peaceful protesters.” The lawmakers asked that any U.S. Customs and Border Protection Tactical Unit (BORTAC), U.S Marshals Service Special Operating Group (SOG), or Homeland Security Investigations Special Response Team (HSI SRT) officers be removed from the Portland protest area.

“In at least some of these instances, these anonymous law enforcement officers appear to be indiscriminately arresting anyone in downtown Portland who they perceive to be associated with protests, searching them, and then releasing or charging them depending on what they find. Proximity and dress do not constitute probable cause,” they wrote. “…There are undoubtedly dangerous acts being committed by a small number of individuals. Yet a Department of Homeland Security press release refers to ‘violent anarchists’ 72 times while describing graffiti.”

Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan tweeted Friday that “agitators in Portland are criminals, not protesters,” adding that they “removed fencing around Federal property to use as barricade, threw frozen water bottles, hard objects & flaming object, continue to use social media to initiate hostile actions against Federal agents.”

“Since @CBP has been deployed to Portland to defend federal property & restore law & order, criminals have attacked using: Hammers, sledgehammers, plywood with nails; balloons filled with fecal matter and paint, rocks & canned goods; commercial grade fireworks and lasers,” Morgan added.

Wolf told Fox News on Friday that DHS “has no problem” with peaceful protesters in Portland; “we are talking about a different group of individuals that have become violent and that are targeting federal courthouses, and we’re not going to let that stand.”

“Portland Police, they want to be a partner. They want to protect their community. Again, I think the concern that I have are the local leadership – local and state leadership,” Wolf said. “They’re fostering an environment where it’s very difficult to do their job, and they are not coming out, in my view, in my opinion, coming out strong enough condemning the violent activity there in Portland.”

Wolf said of lawmakers, “They are more concerned about individuals, violent criminals, in those crowds getting hurt than they are my law enforcement officers.”

The DOJ IG has opened an investigation into the U.S. Marshals’ shooting of Donavan LaBella in the head with a less-lethal round, putting the 26-year-old in critical condition with skull and facial fractures. U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said that “based on news accounts circulating that allege federal law enforcement detained two protestors without probable cause, I have requested the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General to open a separate investigation directed specifically at the actions of DHS personnel.”

A CBP statement said that agents “had information indicating the person in the video was suspected of assaults against federal agents or destruction of federal property.”

“Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone’s safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning,” CBP continued. “The CBP agents identified themselves and were wearing CBP insignia during the encounter. The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country.”

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a complaint against DHS in federal court Friday, saying a judge should require the officers to identify themselves and their agency and only make arrests with probable cause or a warrant.

In a letter today to DOJ IG Michael E. Horowitz and DHS IG Joseph V. Cuffari, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) wrote that “the legal basis for this use of force has never been explained — and, frankly, it is not at all clear that the Attorney General and the Acting Secretary are authorized to deploy federal law enforcement officers in this manner.”

They asked the IGs to review certain events at protests involving federal law enforcement, “the existing statutory authorities, and the extent special deputations are used in response to First Amendment protected activity, including the Floyd protests.”

“We ask that any final report include a description of the length, breadth, number, and location of federal law enforcement authorized by these special deputations to arrest and detain individuals. Finally, we ask that you also review the use of force, crowd-control, and civil rights training these forces received prior to their deployments,” the chairman continued. “This is a matter of utmost urgency. Citizens are concerned that the Administration has deployed a secret police force, not to investigate crimes but to intimidate individuals it views as political adversaries, and that the use of these tactics will proliferate throughout the country.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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