Trump admin defends use of federal agents in Portland protest crackdown
The U.S. attorney in Oregon has called for an oversight investigation.
Homeland Security officials defended their use of riot-control tactics and unmarked vehicles as part of the department's response to another night of unrest in Portland, Oregon, where continuing demonstrations against law enforcement brutality have ignited concerns of whether federal agents overstepped their jurisdiction.
The latest crackdown came at Portland's Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse, which has been an epicenter of the demonstrations and is typically guarded by federal law enforcement.
Richard Cline, deputy director of the Federal Protective Service, said on Tuesday that two people now face charges for assault against a federal officer after the windows of the courthouse were smashed and suspects attempted to throw fireworks into the building. Cline said federal agents made seven arrests overnight and most face misdemeanor charges.
Federal agents, typically tasked with customs and immigration assignments, were also deployed to the area. Video, circulated widely online in recent days, showed agents in military-style uniforms using an unmarked car to make an arrest off the court's property.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan said Tuesday that agents were acting as part of their investigation into violent instigators and defended the lack of agency insignias.
"I've been in law enforcement for almost three decades, the use of unmarked vehicles is a standard procedure, standard practice among every local, state and federal law enforcement agency in this country -- actually in the world," Morgan said. "It's nothing new."
Morgan said he encouraged removing names from uniforms -- a standard for most CBP agents -- after 38 officers had their information published online recently.
Concern over whether immigration agents were properly trained to handle protests are now central in the national conversation about abuses in police tactics. Some CBP agents deployed in recent weeks were not trained in riot control or mass demonstrations, according to a Homeland Security memo published by the New York Times.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf rejected the idea that officers weren't fully prepared while acknowledging to reporters on Tuesday that he hadn't seen the memo.
"These highly specialized units that the commissioner talked about have received advanced training," Wolf said. "This is what they do."
Wolf also defended the re-assignment of immigration officers and pushed back on accusations the officers were acting without proper oversight.
"These officers are not stormtroopers," Wolf said. "They're not the Gestapo, as some have described them. That description is offensive and hyperbolic, and it's dishonest.
Billy J. Williams, the U.S. attorney in the District of Oregon, on Friday called for an oversight investigation into the federal deployments. He was joined in the call for oversight by Democrats in Congress, who accused the administration of perpetrating violence.
"This banana-republic-style secret police unit has unleashed violence against the people of Portland -- mothers, veterans, students -- in complete defiance of state and local officials," Rep. Jamie Raskin said in a statement Tuesday.
Growing tension between federal and local authorities boiled over in the past week with a public feud on Twitter between Portland's mayor and a top homeland security official. Amid the squabble, local officials decided to exclude homeland security personnel from the local emergency operations center.
On Monday, President Donald Trump threatened to deploy more federal agents in cities "run by liberal Democrats" although he did not offer specifics on what might come next.
"I'm going to do something -- that, I can tell you," Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. "Because we're not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these -- Oakland is a mess. We're not going to let this happen in our country."
Wolf said Tuesday the agency wasn't currently surging federal agents to any other cities and said the agents in Portland were not connected to the president's recent executive order to defend U.S. statues and monuments.
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