Federal authorities have assembled a force of 114 federal officers to protect U.S. government buildings in Portland, Ore., in response to ongoing protests, unrest and violence there, as part of a mission dubbed “Operation Diligent Valor.”
Details of the federal response were disclosed in a court filing.
The team of camouflage-clad federal agents who have prompted alarm and criticism by snatching individuals from the streets of Portland appears to be a “Rapid Deployment Force” that is part of the Department of Homeland Security-led operation, based on information the force’s commander submitted Tuesday night in connection with one of several lawsuits challenging those practices.
Federal Protective Service northwest regional director Gabriel Russell said the Rapid Deployment Force he oversees stepped up its activities on July 4 following what he called a “brazen” attempt to set fire to the Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse the previous day.
“In response to the increasingly violent attacks, on the morning of July 4th, the DHS Rapid Deployment Force implemented tactics intended to positively identify and arrest serious offenders for crimes such as assault, while protecting the rights of individuals engaged in protected free speech activity,” Russell wrote in a court declaration.
Russell said the federal agents involved in guarding the buildings and tracking down people who commit related crimes includes contingents from three DHS components: Federal Protective Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, as well as the U.S. Marshals Service, a Justice Department component which has responsibility for protecting federal judges and courthouses.
The Trump administration is considering expanding the effort to other cities that have experienced ongoing protests or unrest, POLITICO reported Tuesday.
Videos that have circulated widely on the internet in recent days show men in camouflage chasing down people who appear to be protesters and bundling them away. The agents’ uniforms do say “police” but there are often few, if any insignia, detailing what agency they represent, whether they are local, state or federal personnel, and whether they are civilian law enforcement or connected to the military.
Some people caught up in such sweeps say they were held at a nondescript location and then released without charges.
Oregon’s two senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, took to the Senate floor Tuesday to call for a ban on what they described as “paramilitary” operations on the streets of Portland.
Russell’s declaration does not provide details on arrests and detentions carried out away from the scenes of protests at Portland’s federal facilities. His declaration does detail several attacks on the Hatfield Courthouse, allege assaults on law enforcement personnel as well as some bizarre incidents, such as an episode where a protester who was allegedly trespassing swallowed some sort of drug after being arrested and began having convulsions.
After protesters were abruptly cleared from the streets near Lafayette Park in Washington last month complained that they did not hear warnings from police telling them to disperse, federal authorities seem to have stepped up efforts to make sure demonstrators know when they’re being told to leave.
Russell said that early on July 12 officials used a special sound system to advise protesters they were trespassing outside the courthouse.
“Commands were made utilizing a long-range acoustic device that is audible even with loud crowd noises,” he wrote. After some of the protesters refused to disperse and continued to throw rocks, bottles and fireworks and pointed lasers at officers, “less-lethal projectile rounds” and tear gas were used, Russell said.
The DHS official’s declaration came in connection with a lawsuit filed by journalists and legal observers who contend their rights were violated in the course of law enforcement responses to the protests and unrest. The suit originally targeted local police but the plaintiffs — backed by the American Civil Liberties Union — moved last week to expand it to cover the tactics being used by federal agents.
The suit seeks an injunction allowing reporters, photographers and legal observers to remain on the scene and carry out their activities, even after protesters are told to depart. But Justice Department lawyers say that’s “not a practicable option” and could even be dangerous.
“There is no dispute that protesters who do not disperse after a lawful order is given may be arrested. Having an unspecified number of people who lawfully may remain, however, will not only greatly complicate efforts to clear an area and restore order, it will also present a clear risk to safety,” the Justice Department submission says.
A hearing on the journalists’ suit is set for Thursday, but a hearing is set for Wednesday on another case, filed last week by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. She’s seeking a temporary restraining order to preclude federal law enforcement agents from anonymously detaining individuals in the state.
Rosenblum has asked the court to order that federal agents only detain people based on warrants or probable cause, identify themselves to suspects being detained, and explain why the suspect is being held.
An individual protester who says he was beaten by federal agents during a protest in Portland Saturday night, Jeff Paul, also filed his own lawsuit Tuesday against President Donald Trump, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and others.