By Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two U.S. federal watchdogs on Thursday launched probes into the use of force by federal law enforcement agents in Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., during recent protests against police violence and alleged racial bias in the justice system.
The probes address both the response by camouflage-clad federal agents to the Portland protests over the past month and a June incident when federal agents on horseback used tear gas to clear a square near the White House to allow President Donald Trump to pose for a photo holding up a Bible near historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The inspectors general of the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security launched the probes, as officers from both departments were involved in the crackdowns.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his office would look specifically at whether officers in Portland had proper identification and if they complied with federal policies on using force in law enforcement, in a case that could lead to criminal charges.
Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, has been stepping up the use of federal officers to respond to a wave of protests across the United States sparked by the death in May of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. He has targeted Democratic-run cities, provoking criticism that he is using law enforcement resources for political ends.
The White House did not immediately comment on the announcement.
“Unidentified forces in military fatigues using tear gas and weapons against peaceful protesters are scenes from an authoritarian crackdown, and have absolutely no place in America,” Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon said.
The move followed a letter from Democratic lawmakers raising concerns that Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf were using federal agents to suppress free assembly, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has come under fire after videos surfaced online that appeared to show camouflaged officers in Portland carrying guns without clear insignia on their uniforms identifying them as legitimate law enforcement officers.
Wolf has previously defended Homeland Security’s actions, saying all federal agents had been making lawful arrests and properly identifying themselves as law enforcement.
“We are only targeting and arresting those who have been identified as committing crime,” Wolf told a Tuesday news conference, noting that “all officers are identified as police law enforcement officers.”
The inquiries could raise Trump’s ire against agency watchdogs. In recent months, Trump has fired or demoted a number of inspectors general, including one who played a key role in his impeachment by the Democratic-led House of Representatives last December. Trump was later acquitted in the Republican-led Senate.
Horowitz said that in addition to the Portland investigation, his office would review actions taken against protesters in Portland and in Washington’s Lafayette Square on June 1.
Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari opened an investigation into allegations that DHS officers on July 15 improperly detained and transported protesters in Portland, according to a letter he sent to congressional lawmakers.
A Customs spokeswoman on Thursday declined to comment on matters under investigation.
The Justice Department inquiries could lead to vastly different outcomes.
Its investigation into the actions in Portland, which was also requested by the U.S. attorney in Oregon, could lead to a referral for criminal charges or disciplinary actions.
The reviews in both Washington and Portland are designed to assist department managers by providing recommendations to improve government operations and protocols going forward and to help learn from past mistakes.
The Inspector General’s Office for the Department of the Interior will be coordinating the review into the actions in Washington.
Cuffari said he was also forming a team to review whether DHS law enforcement had proper legal authority when it was dispatched to Portland.
Representatives for the Justice Department and U.S. Park Police, part of the Department of the Interior, could not be immediately reached.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Susan Cornwell and Steve Holland; Editing by Scott Malone, Rosalba O’Brien and Peter Cooney)