Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said the agency had deployed tactical units from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to help defend federal buildings and officers. He said the DHS also expanded its numbers in other cities as demonstrations had escalated in recent months.
“You can expect that if violence continues in other parts of the country, the president has made no secret of the fact that he expects us where we can cooperate or have jurisdiction to step forward and expand our policing efforts there to bring down the level of violence,” Cuccinelli said in an interview Sunday.
DHS and Justice Department personnel have made about two dozen arrests since July 4 in the vicinity of the federal courthouse in Portland, not including short-term detentions of suspects whom agents want to question, according to a DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss federal law enforcement operations in Portland. The protesters’ use of black clothing, face coverings and diversion tactics have made it difficult for federal agents to identify people, they said.
DHS teams were deployed to reinforce the Federal Protective Service in Seattle before July 4 in anticipation of major disturbances, but the Seattle team has been withdrawn, the official added.
While the DHS official said there are no immediate plans to increase presence in other cities, the president of Chicago’s police union on Saturday published a public letter to President Donald Trump, asking for federal assistance in controlling the “chaos” in the city. Union President John Catanzara also criticized Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat whose office called the letter “a stunt,” in a statement to CBS.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler on Sunday implored the “dozens, if not hundreds” of federal agents to leave the city, saying on CNN that the Homeland Security officers were detaining residents in unmarked minivans, wearing badges with numbers instead of names.
“They’re not wanted here. We haven’t asked them here. In fact, we want them to leave,” said Wheeler, a Democrat.
In response, Cuccinelli said, “We don’t have any plans to do that.”
“When the violence recedes, then that is when we would look at that,” he said. “This isn’t intended to be a permanent arrangement, but it will last as long as the violence demands additional support to contend with.”
Cuccinelli said the agency is not naming the federal officers, to protect them and their families from doxing and other harassment.
Portland is in its seventh week of racial justice demonstrations. City officials — who are also contending with the novel coronavirus — say the Trump administration is antagonizing protesters, violating their rights and interfering with local efforts to quell the demonstrations. But federal officials say they are defending their federal officers and institutions in a city that cannot keep them safe.
In an interview Sunday, Wheeler said the ongoing protests after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody had settled into a calmer rhythm and the vandalism had subsided before federal agents arrived. But now, after multiple days of violent skirmishes between protesters and agents deployed by the DHS, the mayor said he worries that someone could be killed.
Last week, video surfaced of CBP agents in military-style gear approaching 29-year-old Mark Pettibone as he walked home from a protest and taking him away in an unmarked van.
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a federal lawsuit against the DHS and its agencies Friday alleging the federal government had violated Oregonians’ civil rights by seizing and detaining them without probable cause during protests against police brutality in the past week.
“If the federal government continues to ratchet up its incendiary rhetoric and if federal troops continue their unconstitutional occupation of our city, it could lead to someone being killed,” Wheeler told The Washington Post. “Either a demonstrator or a local or state law enforcement official. If either case happens, there’s no telling how the community might react.”
But Wheeler and the police union’s tweets in early July show that the city had been facing violent threats before the DHS says it ramped up its presence.
On July 3, Wheeler called for the “nightly violence” to end.
“This has been going on for more than a month now,” Wheeler tweeted July 3, saying groups were targeting the Justice Center and “threatening the safety of hundreds of inmates and employees inside.”
“They continue to hurt small businesses owned by people of color, instill fear in communities of color, and start fires in buildings with people inside, in one specific case, even bolting emergency doors so that they could not escape,” he said in a tweet.
The Portland police union, whose union hall was broken into and burned over the weekend, posted online July 8 that the union’s executive board had “no confidence” that the City Council would stop the violence. Union officials said officers had “endured weeks of rocks, bricks, bottles, mortars, and other objects hurled at them with hate.”
“Enough,” the union said in a Facebook post.
Wheeler said there were “dozens, if not hundreds” of federal agents in Portland. Although Cuccinelli declined to provide a number, he said it was “somewhere in between.”
Cuccinelli said DHS deployed a number of federal agents to supplement the Federal Protective Service, which guards federal buildings such as courthouses, over the Fourth of July weekend amid growing intelligence that demonstrators were targeting federal buildings. A federal protective officer in Oakland, California, was shot and killed in May, allegedly by an Air Force sergeant seizing on the protests to sow mayhem.
He said that the deployment took place five weeks into the violence in Portland, and that “for anyone to say that our arrival 30 or so days into daily violence in their city was caused by something that showed up later is just illogical and silly.”
“We had intelligence that the federal facilities were going to be further targets, so we deemed it unsafe for the FPS forces available by themselves,” Cuccinelli said.
He would not say how many agents have been dispatched to the city, but he said they were highly trained officers from ICE’s criminal division, Homeland Security Investigations, which probes crimes such as drug and human trafficking, and the CBP’s BORTAC tactical unit. He said they were deployed “substantially” over the July 4 weekend — several weeks into the demonstrations — as it became clear that Portland authorities were not tamping down the violence.
He said the Federal Protective Service is in charge on the ground, and the CBP and ICE support teams are reporting to them. He also discounted a New York Times report that an internal DHS memo said the teams were not trained for mass demonstrations or crowd control. And he said they were operating with full authority under law.
“All of the people in Portland are trained for the mission,” he said. “All the officers present have crowd-control training.”
House Democrats on the Judiciary, Homeland Security, and Oversight and Reform committees condemned the use of “violent tactics against peaceful protesters in the District of Columbia, Portland and elsewhere across the country, and demanded that the inspectors general of the Justice Department and the DHS open an immediate investigation into these actions. They sent letters to the Justice Department and DHS inspectors general, calling for an inquiry.
“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 wrote, saying Attorney General William Barr “does not have unfettered authority to direct thousands of federal law enforcement personnel to arrest and detain American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Wheeler had not been told that federal forces would go to his city, he said, until after the officers were there, and he said he was never asked whether Portland wanted the federal government’s help.
And to top it off, he said, the federal forces had not helped to clean any of the property damage that acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf seemingly used as justification for sending federal forces in to deal with “violent extremists.”
“It’s totally disingenuous,” Wheeler said. “What we needed were people who were trained in de-escalation, containment strategy, targeted arrests of individuals who are actually engaged in illegal activity. Instead what they’ve given us is warfare on our streets.”