The United States Justice Department’s internal watchdog launched probes on Thursday into the use of force by federal agents in Portland, Oregon and Washington, DC during recent protests against police violence.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his office would launch an investigation into allegations that federal agents used excessive force against peaceful protesters in Portland and a separate review into actions taken against protesters both in Portland and in Lafayette Square near the White House on June 1.
Democratic legislators have asked for such an investigation about concerns Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf were using federal agents to “suppress First Amendment-protected activities”. The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects the right to assemble peacefully.
The White House did not immediately comment on the announcement.
The review will look specifically at whether officers involved had proper identification and if they complied with federal policies on using force in law enforcement, Horowitz said in a statement.
President Donald Trump 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.
Trump, who is seeking re-election in November, has targeted Democratic-run cities, provoking criticism that he is using law enforcement resources for political ends.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was stung by tear gas early on Thursday morning after joining demonstrators, who have been protesting for nearly two months against racial injustice and police brutality.
Security forces have frequently tear-gassed and clubbed demonstrators during the unrest and Wheeler, visiting the protest site outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, urged that federal agents be withdrawn from the city.
But Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner, was jeered by demonstrators, who called on him to resign and chanted, “Shame on You.” Some said he should have done more to protect Portland’s citizens.
The deployment of federal agents in Portland on July 4 is a flashpoint in a national debate over civil liberties that has roiled the US since Floyd’s death on May 25.
US 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.
While both inquiries announced on Thursday by Horowitz involve looking at the use of force by federal law enforcement, they could lead to vastly different outcomes.
The investigation into the actions in Portland could potentially 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.
Horowitz said he would be coordinating with the internal Homeland Security watchdog in his investigation into excessive force in Portland, a probe that was requested by the US attorney for the District of Oregon in addition to House Democrats.
The Inspector General’s Office for the Department of the Interior will be coordinating the review into the actions in Washington.
The White House did not immediately comment on the announcement, and representatives for the Justice Department and US Park Police, part of the Department of the Interior, could not be immediately reached.
A spokesman for the Federal Protective Service, part of DHS, declined to comment on a pending investigation. A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, which had staff at the Lafayette Square incident, declined comment.