WASHINGTON – Two U.S. federal watchdogs investigated Thursday the use of force by federal law enforcement officers in Portland, Oregon and Washington, D.C. during recent protests against police brutality and alleged racial prejudice in the justice system.
The probes cover both the response of camouflage-clad federal agents to last month’s Portland protests and an incident in June when federal agents on horseback used tear gas to clear a square near the White House, so that President Donald Trump was able to pose for a picture with a Bible near the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The inspectors general from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security launched the probes because agents from both departments were involved in the crackdown.
Justice Department inspector Michael Horowitz said his office would specifically look to see if officers in Portland had the correct identification and whether they would adhere to federal policy on the use of force in law enforcement in a criminal prosecution case could lead.
Trump, who is seeking reelection in November, has stepped up the use of federal officers to respond to a wave of protests in the United States caused by the death of George Floyd in custody in Minneapolis in May. He focused on democratically managed cities and criticized the use of law enforcement for political purposes.
The White House did not immediately respond to the announcement.
“Unidentified military fatigues using tear gas and weapons against peaceful protesters are scenes of authoritarian crackdown and absolutely out of place in America,” said Oregon Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.
The move followed a letter from Democratic lawmakers who expressed concern that Attorney General William Barr and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, used federal agents to repress free assembly, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has come under fire after online videos surfaced that showed Portland camouflaged agents carrying weapons without a clear badge on their uniform identifying them as legitimate law enforcement officers.
Wolf previously defended Homeland Security’s actions, saying that all federal agents had made legal arrests and correctly identified themselves as law enforcement officers.
“We are only targeting and arresting those identified as crimes,” Wolf told a news conference on Tuesday, noting that “all officers are identified as police police officers.”
The investigations could increase Trump’s anger against agency watchdogs. In recent months, Trump has fired or demoted a number of Inspectors General, including one who played a key role in his impeachment by the Democratically-led House of Representatives last December. Trump was later acquitted in the Republican-led Senate.
Horowitz said his office would review actions against protesters in Portland and in Lafayette Square in Washington on June 1 alongside the Portland investigation.
Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari opened an investigation into allegations that DHS officers improperly detained protesters and transported protesters in Portland on July 15, according to a letter he sent to congressional legislators.
A customs spokeswoman declined to comment on the matters under investigation on Thursday.
Justice investigations can lead to very different results.
Investigations into the actions in Portland, which have also been requested by the United States attorney in Oregon, could lead to a referral for criminal charges or disciplinary action.
The assessments in both Washington and Portland are designed to help department managers by making recommendations to improve future operations and protocols and to learn from past mistakes.
The Office of the Inspector General of the Interior Ministry coordinates the evaluation of actions in Washington.
Cuffari said he was also forming a team to assess whether DHS law enforcement had the correct legal authority when it was shipped to Portland.
Representatives from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Park Police, part of the Department of the Interior, were not immediately available.