WASHINGTON – Two federal inspectors general announced Thursday that they will investigate how Justice Department and Homeland Security agents used force, detained people and conducted themselves at high-profile clashes with protesters in Portland, Ore., and Washington.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz will investigate how U.S. marshals have used force in Portland, and how other parts of the Justice Department – such as the FBI; Drug Enforcement Administration; and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – were used to quell unrest in the nation’s capital.
The Department of Homeland Security inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, said in a letter to lawmakers that he opened an investigation into allegations that Customs and Border Protection agents “improperly detained and transported protesters” in Portland, and that he would review the deployment there of DHS personnel in recent weeks.
The inspector general investigations add to a growing list of inquiries into events in Portland and Washington, where local officials have criticized federal agencies for what they have called heavy-handed aggression toward peaceful protesters.
The Democratic leaders of three congressional panels – Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., of the Judiciary Committee; Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., of the Oversight and Reform Committee; and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., of the Homeland Security Committee – said in a joint statement that the investigations are “critically important” because the Trump administration has pledged to send federal agents to more cities in the coming days.
“Many of these federal agents are dressed as soldiers, driving unmarked vehicles and refusing to identify themselves or their agencies. . . . Nearly everywhere they have deployed, their presence has increased tensions and caused more confrontation between demonstrators and police.”
It would be unusual for an inspector general investigation to produce quick answers. Many cases do not result in a public report until more than a year after they are initiated.
Lawmakers had pressed Horowitz in recent weeks to investigate whether the Trump administration was misusing federal law enforcement resources, particularly when it came to rules of engagement, and the use of tear gas and less-lethal munitions.
As part of those reviews, the inspector general will examine what federal law enforcement did in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1, when protesters were forcibly cleared from the area just before President Donald Trump walked to a nearby church and held up a Bible in front of photographers.
That inquiry will be coordinated with the inspector general for the Department of Interior, which includes the U.S. Park Police, an agency that played a large role in the events of that day.
In Portland, U.S. Marshals have faced off against protesters every night for nearly two months, and the Department of Homeland Security has used its own officers and agents to try to quell nightly unrest around the federal courthouse.
Two incidents there have drawn particular scrutiny toward the Marshals Service.
In the early morning hours of July 12, a protester holding what appeared to be a speaker across the street from the courthouse was struck in the head by a nonlethal munition fired from one of the people guarding the courthouse. The U.S. Marshals has not yet identified the agency that fired that projectile, but has said it is investigating the incident. State and local law enforcement have said they, too, are investigating the matter. The protester’s family said the munition struck him with such force he needed surgery for skull fractures.
A week later, 53-year-old Navy veteran Christopher David was beaten with a baton and pepper sprayed by U.S. Marshals outside the courthouse. David suffered broken bones in his hand, and U.S. Marshals said the force was justified because he presented a threat by “continuing to approach them and failing to comply with lawful commands to withdraw as they proceeded to reenter the courthouse.”
David has said he was trying to ask the federal agents why they were there.
Both incidents were captured on video, and drew widespread criticism from protesters and some lawmakers who insist the video shows the individuals were not threatening anyone.
In Washington, there are still many unresolved questions about precisely how and why a phalanx of federal law enforcement officials forcibly cleared a street by Lafayette Square minutes before the president walked across the park to historic St. John’s church, which had been vandalized. Attorney General William Barr directly oversaw the federal response to the protests, and has said the area was not cleared so the president could walk to the church.
“My attitude was get it done, but I didn’t say, ‘Go do it’,” Barr later told The Associated Press.