WASHINGTON — The watchdog agencies for the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department announced on Thursday that they will investigate the use of force by federal law enforcement officers who were deployed to respond to anti–police brutality protests in Portland, as well as DOJ's broader involvement in the federal response to protests in Portland and Washington, DC, this summer.
Protesters in Portland have reported that federal officers who weren't wearing identifying information on their uniforms have snatched people off the street and detained them without probable cause. Videos have captured violent confrontations between federal officers and demonstrators, particularly around the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse, and shown officers using tear gas and other "less than lethal" weapons.
More than 100 federal law enforcement officers have been involved in the response to demonstrations in Portland in recent weeks, according to a court filing by the government earlier this week in one of several lawsuits challenging the Trump administration's actions. One of the agencies involved, the US Marshals Services, is part of the Justice Department. The rest of the officers have come from the Department of Homeland Security and agencies within it.
The DOJ inspector general's office said had opened the probe, in coordination with its DHS counterpart, in response to requests from members of Congress, complaints submitted to the office, and a referral by Billy Williams, the US attorney for Oregon.
The second, broader investigation announced by the DOJ inspector general's office on Thursday regarding federal law enforcement activities in Portland and Washington will cover "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."
During anti-racism and anti–police brutality demonstrations in Washington in May and June, federal law enforcement officers — often wearing uniforms that didn't identify who they were or which agency they were with — were involved in guarding federal property and pushing back protesters. On June 1, federal agents charged demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square near the White House and used tear gas to clear them out before Trump walked through the area to do a photo op at a nearby church that previously had been damaged.
Attorney General Bill Barr has defended the decision to clear the park. The DOJ inspector general's office specified in Thursday's announcement that it would review the Lafayette Square incident, working with its watchdog counterpart at the Department of the Interior, since US Park Police were involved. The Park Police and the White House initially denied that officers used tear gas — even though protesters and journalists reported experiencing it firsthand — but a spokesperson later told Vox that it was a "mistake" to object to the term when the chemical irritants used had the same effect.
The Trump administration has vowed to send federal law enforcement officers to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, as well, claiming local officials aren't doing enough to address violent crime. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has said the federal presence is unwanted in her city and accused Trump of using the deployment — titled "Operation Legend" — to distract from the administration's "failed leadership" responding to the coronavirus pandemic.