WASHINGTON – As in many cities across the country, sustained demonstrations against police brutality erupted in Portland following the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Nearly two months later, the nightly clashes prompted by Floyd’s death have been largely overtaken by a bitter politically-charged struggle pitting Oregon officials against the federal government and its deployment of dozens of agents to local streets.
The federal action has raised difficult legal questions about local control in Portland and the tactics employed by federal agents largely attired in combat camouflage and whose agency affiliations are not always known. It has also drawn comparisons to an aggressive federal response to largely peaceful protests last month in the shadow of the White House.
Here are few things to know about what is happening in Portland:
When were federal authorities deployed? And what is their mission?
The largest surge of federal officers was launched in early July. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the primary mission was to secure federal building, including the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse which had become a target for protesters.
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Since that time, according to federal court documents, an estimated 114 officers and agents have joined the surge representing several DHS law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Protective Service, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Marshals Service, which is under the Justice Department.
The federal contingent has remained in the city, despite calls for their removal by city officials who have claimed that the federal presence has inflamed clashes on the street.
Wolf has maintained as recently as Tuesday that officers are acting within their authority to protect federal property and because of “a lack of action” by local officials.
“We will not retreat,” Wolf said at a Tuesday briefing in Washington. “We will take appropriate action to protect our facilities.”
Local officials and demonstrators have accused federal authorities of shielding their identities and using unmarked cars to conduct investigations and arrests. Is that accurate?
Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol, acknowledged Tuesday that names have been removed from some officers’ uniforms because their personal information was being published on social media, putting them at potential risk.
But Morgan said all uniforms carry markings identifying officers as police or law enforcement. He described the use of unmarked vehicles as “standard procedure” and appropriate “especially under the circumstances.”
Analysts, however, have sharply criticized the insertion of immigration enforcement officers from their largely rural border assignments to an unfamiliar urban environment.
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“It’s just not their role or expertise,” said Gil Kerlikowske, a former Customs and Border Protection commissioner in the Obama administration. “I was shocked that (the Border Patrol Tactical Unit) BORTAC would be used. All of these guys are totally a bad fit.”
“These teams are not doing anything more than providing political theater for an audience of one,” Kerlikowske said, referring to President Donald Trump. “Policing in an urban area and policing civil disturbance is not anything they have experience or training for.”
Morgan defended the officers’ suitability for the Portland mission, describing them as some of the “most highly trained” in the CBP. Morgan specifically defended the use of BORTAC, saying the unit is trained to subdue rioting at DHS detention centers.
What’s legal in the federal response in Portland? What’s not? What’s in murky territory?
Constitutional law experts say the deployment of federal officers and agents to Portland may run afoul with state and local laws.
While federal officers have the authority to defend and protect federal courthouses and other federal properties, patrolling streets that aren’t part of federal boundaries – and against the wishes of local and state officials – gets into murky legal territory, Steve Vladeck, a constitutional law expert from the University of Texas at Austin, wrote.
Federal officials do have the authority to arrest people outside federal properties or boundaries when there’s probable cause that they’ve violated federal or state law. But Oregon law requires federal officers to first have certification and training, Vladeck wrote. It’s unclear if the federal officers in Portland have undergone such training.
Others have raised civil rights concerns, citing the use of excessive force and tear gas against protesters. Tensions rose earlier this month after federal officers fired a nonlethal rounds at a protester, critically injuring him.
One widely circulated video shows two officers in green military fatigues pick up a protester and take him to an unmarked van without explaining why they’re doing so, which agency they belong to, or which authority they’re working under. Another video shows officers in street clothes yanking a woman off the street and taking her to an unmarked car as bystanders screamed.
“The people do seem to be getting detained without probable cause or the necessary requirements that they’ve committed a crime,” said Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University. “Even state officers have to comply with those.”
Why are local and state officials in Portland resisting federal presence?
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler had relied on police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers to man the protests and has repeatedly asked federal officials to leave the city, saying their presence only fuels the unrest and violates the protesters’ First Amendment rights.
“Last week, we were seeing the de-escalation of the violence. We were seeing things calm down. But the intervention of federal officers reignited tensions,” Wheeler said during a video news conference last Friday.
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State officials have voiced similar concerns.
“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement. “We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the president of the United States.”
Oregon’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit against several federal agencies accusing them of civil rights violations and have asked a judge to issue an order barring them from using tactics state officials see as unconstitutional.
What are concerns from other cities regarding the deployment of federal forces?
In a joint letter last week to Wolf and Attorney General William Barr, the mayors of Chicago, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Kansas City, Missouri, said: “The unilateral deployment of these forces into American cities is unprecedented and violates the fundamental constitutional protections and tenets of federalism.”
The mayors criticized the administration’s decision to send federal agents that normally deal with national security threats and immigration violations to conduct crowd control on city streets. They said their actions in Portland have “blatantly disregarded” local rules and expectations about how to deal with civilians.
“Furthermore, it is concerning that federal law enforcement is being deployed for political purposes,” the letter said. “The President and his administration continually attack local leadership and amplify false and divisive rhetoric purely for campaign fodder.”
The letter came following news that Trump is weighing a broad deployment of federal officers in Chicago and in other cities.
Contributing: Lindsay Schnell