Trump administration to be investigated over use of force against protesters in Portland

Inspectors general at the Justice and Homeland Security Departments are probing the president's actions to send federal law enforcement into cities to quiet protests

Griffin Connolly
Thursday 23 July 2020 22:18 BST
Trump announces surge of federal officers to Chicago despite outrage over Portland crackdown

Inspectors general at the US Justice Department and Homeland Security Department are launching separate probes into the Trump administration's deployment of federal law enforcement officers to Portland, Oregon, and various complaints over their use of force on demonstrators, they announced on Thursday.

In a letter to three House Democratic committee chairs — Jerry Nadler of the Judiciary panel, Carolyn Maloney of the Oversight panel, and Benny Thompson of the Homeland Security panel — DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced he is "initiating a review to examine the DOJ’s and its law enforcement components’ roles and responsibilities in responding to protest activity and civil unrest in Washington, DC, and in Portland, Oregon over the prior two months."

That review will include "examining 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," the inspector general wrote.

The DOJ Office of the Inspector General is coordinating its review of events in Lafayette Square on 1 June — when federal agents used tear gas and flash bang grenades to disperse peaceful protesters and clear a path for Donald Trump to walk to a photo op at a local church — with the inspector general at the Department of the Interior.

"If circumstances warrant, the OIG will consider including other issues that may arise during the course of the review," Mr Horowitz wrote.

Mr Horowitz's office is not the only one to launch a probe into the administration's activities in response to anti-police brutality protests that have frequently broken out into riotous behaviour in various cities across the United States this summer.

DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari has opened an investigation "into allegations that on July 15, 2020, DHS law enforcement personnel improperly detained and transported protesters in Portland, Oregon," he wrote to the same group of lawmakers.

Mr Cuffari's team will coordinate its investigation with Mr Horowitz's team and other agencies "as appropriate", he wrote.

Donald Trump does not appear to be in any hurry to curtail his administration's legally questionable methods for suppressing the protests, which Republican lawmakers have scorned for their degeneration, at times, into violence and vandalism.

The recent wave of protests was set off by the killings in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and several others.

In fact, he announced on Wednesday he would “surge” federal law enforcement officers to Chicago “immediately” to quell violence there, invoking the same legal doctrines he cited for his actions in Portland.

Democratic lawmakers have accused the president of using the federal police deployments as a campaign tactic, targeting cities with Democratic leadership. Part of his sales pitch for a second term, despite trailing former vice president Joe Biden nationally and in most key swing states, is that he is a “law-and-order president”.

But majorities of American voters, according to multiple polls taken in recent weeks, oppose Mr Trump’s response to violence across the country, a large portion of which is linked to the killing of George Floyd and other black people by white police officers.

Attorney General William Barr, whose role in the street clearance manoeuvres near Lafayette Square in the nation's capital last month will receive scrutiny as part of the DOJ probe, has indicated he may deploy federal units to Kansas City and several other cities in the coming weeks.

Mr Barr said recent violence is directly related to an “attack” on police, presumably the “defund the police” slogan pushed by some black activists.

While the president's campaign has sought to tie his Democratic opponent this fall, Joe Biden, to the "defund the police" movement, Mr Biden has made clear he intends to do no such thing.

His plan to remake the criminal justice system recommends diverting some federal funding from police departments in order to create a “civilian corps of unarmed first responders such as social workers, EMTs, and trained mental health professionals” who would handle nonviolent incidents such as mental health emergencies or low-level conflicts, according to a manifesto drafted by six joint task forces he created with Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders to shore up support among progressives.

Such a corps of first responders would “[free] police officers to concentrate on the most serious crimes,” the Biden-Sanders task forces state in their policy recommendations.

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