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DOJ Inspector General Investigating Federal Agents' Actions In Portland And D.C.

Protesters walk through chemical irritants deployed by federal agents in Portland, Ore. The Justice Department inspector general says he is investigating federal officers' roles in responding to protests in Portland and Washington, D.C.
Noah Berger
Protesters walk through chemical irritants deployed by federal agents in Portland, Ore. The Justice Department inspector general says he is investigating federal officers' roles in responding to protests in Portland and Washington, D.C.

The Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation into allegations that DOJ personnel have improperly used force this month in Portland, Ore., as well as an inquiry into their role in responding to mass protests in Washington, D.C., since late May.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz announcedthe inquiry the day after federal agents tear-gassedPortland Mayor Ted Wheeler during a protest Wednesday night outside a federal courthouse.

At a broader level, the inspector general will review the way DOJ personnel have been used to respond to protests and civil unrest in both Portland and Washington over the past two months. The review will include agents' use of force as well as tear gas and "less-lethal munitions" — a category that often includes items such as bean bag rounds and rubber bullets.

Portland and Washington are among several large cities where federal agents' presence and aggressive tactics have stoked controversy. The mayors of at least five cities, including Portland and Washington, sent a letter to President Trump this week asking him to withdraw the agents, saying they were inflaming tensions.

The agents' deployment by the Trump administration has prompted criticism from local and state leaders, who say the move is motivated more by political goals than by a desire to preserve law and order. So far, all of the cities where agents have been deployed are led by Democrats.

The separate inquiries are in response to requests from Congress, members of the public, and a referral by U.S. Attorney Billy Williams, who heads the District of Oregon office.

Joseph Cuffari, the Department of Homeland Security inspector general, said his office is investigating allegations that law enforcement officers from his agency "improperly detained and transported protesters" in Portland on July 15. Cuffari announced the move in a letter sent Thursday to Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee.

The July 15 date corresponds to the night on which several protesters in Portland said federal agents used unmarked vehicles anddidn't identify themselves as they seized people off the streets.

Many of the federal agents in Portland are from the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group, a SWAT-like unit from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protective Service, as NPR's Laurel Wamsley reported. They began ramping up their activities in early July — and the federal presence has sparked new protests outside the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse.

Over the weekend, the Oregon Department of Justice announced it is suing several federal agencies — including the U.S. Marshals Service, Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protective Service — over alleged civil rights abuses.

The Washington portion of the inquiry includes a look at the use of tear gas against protesters in Lafayette Square on June 1.

The square across from the White House has been the hub of protests against racial injustice and police brutality – and in a widely noted event, federal agents used tear gas and physical force to push people out of the plaza. The agents were acting to clear the way for Trump, who then posed for a brief photo-op outside the adjacent St. John's Church.

"The review will include examining the training and instruction that was provided to the DOJ law enforcement personnel," Horowitz said.

He added that it will also examine how federal agents complied with "applicable identification requirements, rules of engagement, and legal authorities" as well as their "adherence to DOJ policies regarding the use of less-lethal munitions, chemical agents, and other uses of force."

While part of the Portland investigation will be coordinated with the DHS Office of the Inspector General, the Washington inquiry will include the Department of the Interior, another agency that has contributed personnel to the "surge" of federal agents into U.S. cities.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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