Inspectors General Announce Probes Into Feds’ Use Of Force In Portland, DC Protests

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies about the Inspector General's report on alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing o... Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies about the Inspector General's report on alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, December 11, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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July 23, 2020 2:48 p.m.

The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General announced Thursday that it had launched an investigation into the department’s use of force in the recent protests in Portland and Washington, D.C., including how law enforcement cleared out Lafayette Square in front of the White House in June.

A short time after that, Democratic lawmakers revealed that they’d been informed by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general that his office would be investigating federal agents’ activity on July 15, when protesters reported being detained without cause.

The Justice Department review will “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,” according to the announcement by Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

“The 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 announcement said.

The investigation of the DOJ’s Portland conduct is being coordinated with the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, Horowitz said. The investigation into the Lafayette Square episode is being coordinated with the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General.

In a separate letter Thursday, Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari announced a review of the events on July 15 in Portland.

That day, according to a declaration subsequently filed in federal court by protester Mark Pettibone, Pettibone was detained by federal agents in an unmarked minivan who then drove him to a federal courthouse. Pettibone said the agents released him after he refused to answer their questions but would not give him a record of his arrest.

Another video surfaced July 15 shows federal agents emerging from an unmarked van, grabbing someone, and driving away. Trump administration officials later said the agents were moving the person away from the area to question them safely, and that no arrest had occurred.

Cuffari on Thursday also noted the formation of “a multi-disciplinary team to examine DHS’ deployment of law enforcement personnel to Portland.”

News of the internal investigations comes several days after Oregon U.S. Attorney Billy Williams requested a probe into the federal presence there. Several lawmakers, including both of the state’s U.S. senators, also requested a watchdog investigation.

Though the Department of Homeland Security has handled most of the federal response to protesters in Portland — operating through the Federal Protective Service, the sub-agency responsible for protecting federal buildings — the DOJ has also played a role.

U.S. marshals, tasked by the DOJ with protecting federal courthouses, have engaged with protesters outside the Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland for weeks.

On July 12, a deputy U.S. marshal shot 26-year-old protester Donavan LaBella with what witnesses said was some type of “less lethal” munition, reportedly fracturing LaBella’s skull.

And on Saturday, deputy U.S. marshals pepper sprayed and beat Navy veteran Christopher David with a baton, breaking his hand.

At a press conference Tuesday, officials with the Department of Homeland Security said that the Justice Department inspector general was investigating the latter incident — but they made no mention of the DOJ inspector general coordinating with DHS’ own, as Horowitz and Cuffari announced Thursday.

The DHS presence in Portland — complete with ICE and CBP agents dressed in camouflage — has infuriated Portlanders and led local officials to urge the feds to leave. Oregon’s attorney general has sued the Trump administration for what she says is the violation of Oregonians’ rights.

In Washington, D.C., the violent June 1 incident at Lafayette Square foreshadowed the aggressive tactics the administration would go on to use in other parts of the country against protesters demonstrating in favor of racial justice.

Federal agents used force to remove hundreds of protesters who had been demonstrating in the square in front of the White House. The protesters were given little warning, and the operation appeared to be designed to clear the way for President Trump to do a photo op in front of a church near the White House. Attorney General Bill Barr has admitted to being involved in giving the order that those protesters be cleared out, though he denied that the operation was linked to the photo op, which happened less than an hour after the protests were dispersed.

This post has been updated. 

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