DOJ Watchdog Launches Probe Into Use of Force Allegations in Portland and District of Columbia

July 23, 2020 Updated: July 23, 2020

The Justice Department’s internal watchdog on Thursday initiated a probe into use of force allegations involving federal law enforcement agents during recent protests in Portland, Oregon, and the District of Columbia.

The department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, said the investigation was launched in response to congressional requests, complaints by members of the public, and a referral from the U.S. Attorney in Oregon. The probe will review the department’s role and responsibilities in responding to protests and rioting in the two cities over the last two months, the department said in a statement, adding that the investigation will be coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The review will also examine 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.

Last month, the Office of Inspector General for the Interior Department announced that it was investigating allegations that excessive force was used to clear Lafayette Square of protesters on June 1—an event that was highly controversial because it was carried out hours before President Donald Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Church.

Attorney General William Barr explained at the time that the move to clear the square was part of their operation to expand the safety perimeter by one block in response to violent riots in the area over the previous few days. He added that decision was made before he knew Trump was going to speak at the church.

Horowitz said the DOJ will coordinate their review with the Interior Department.

This comes after the Trump administration drew criticism for deploying federal forces to Portland, Oregon, to protect federal buildings and monuments. The city has faced over 50 consecutive days of rioting and violence. Rioting began in the city since late May in the wake of George Floyd’s death, but local officials say the unrest only escalated after federal forces were dispatched there.

Accounts of how federal officers have arrested rioters who caused damage to a federal courthouse have raised concerns among local officials and U.S. lawmakers. Protesters have alleged federal agents wearing camouflage and tactical gear without identifying insignia detained individuals and placed them into unmarked vehicles without stating the basis for the arrest, according to various accounts made to media outlets.

The accuracy of these reports has been disputed by acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, who said federal officers wear multi-camouflage uniforms with insignia that read “Police.” He said operations only target and arrest individuals who have been identified as committing criminal acts.

Local and state officials have called on federal agents to leave the city. Meanwhile, four Oregon lawmakers sent a letter (pdf) to Horowitz and DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari on Wednesday urging them to investigate allegations of “violent tactics used by federal law enforcement officers” responding to protest activities in Portland.

The lawmakers cited an incident where a 26-year-old protestor was seriously injured after being struck by an impact munition allegedly fired by federal law enforcement agents.

Trump on Wednesday announced a surge of federal law enforcement agents will be sent into Chicago, Illinois, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, as part of efforts to combat a recent rise in violent crime in those cities and restore public safety.

Hundreds of law enforcement officers from the FBI, U.S. Marshal Service, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) will be sent to the cities in an effort to drive down crime, the president said.

The announcement is part of an expansion of a DOJ program—known as “Operation Legend”—to stem the spike in violent crime across the country. Operation Legend, named after 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro, who was shot and killed while sleeping in his home, was first launched in Kansas City, Missouri, as part of Trump’s promise to assist cities that have have been hit by a recent string of violence, the DOJ said.

“Every American no matter their income, their race, or their zip code should be able to walk their city streets, free from violence and free from fear,” he said.

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