Washington — The Justice Department’s internal watchdog announced Thursday it is investigating use of force by the department’s law enforcement personnel against protesters in Portland this month and will examine officers’ response to civil unrest in Washington, D.C., including the clearing of demonstrators from a park in front of the White House last month.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said the investigation stems from congressional requests, as well as complaints his office received and a referral from Oregon’s top federal prosecutor.
The investigation into the tactics of the Justice Department officers comes as the Trump administration is facing scrutiny for sending federal law enforcement to Portland to quell unrest around the federal courthouse there. But the agents, who work for numerous federal agencies, have clashed with protesters and, in some instances, used tear gas to disperse the crowd and detained demonstrators. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was among those tear-gassed by federal officers Wednesday night.
The actions from federal law enforcement have prompted state and local officials in Oregon to call on the Trump administration to withdraw them from Portland.
On Sunday, the Democratic chairs of three House committees asked the inspectors general of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to open investigations into the tactics of the federal agents sent to the streets of Portland. The lawmakers, who lead the Judiciary, Homeland Security and Oversight and Reform Committees, questioned the legal basis for the use of force and whether the Trump administration had the authority to deploy federal law enforcement to arrest and detain protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.
But White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Monday said the Trump administration is acting within its authority to send federal officers to American cities and cited a provision of federal law that says the Homeland Security secretary “shall protect the buildings, grounds and property that are owned, occupied, or secured by the federal government … and the persons on the property.” The measure also allows the secretary to deputize Homeland Security employees “in connection with the protection of” federal property.
In addition to investigating the tactics of Justice Department personnel in Portland this month, Horowitz said the review of the department’s actions during protests in Washington, D.C., is in response to requests from lawmakers and the public.
The inspector general’s office will examine the training and instruction given to the Justice Department’s law enforcement officers, whether they complied with “applicable identification requirements, rules of engagement and legal authorities,” and whether they adhered to Justice Department policies regarding use of “less-lethal munitions, chemical agents and other uses of force.”
Part of the investigation will involve the June 1 incident in Lafayette Square, located across the street in front of the White House, during which federal law enforcement forced demonstrators from the area. After the park was cleared, President Trump walked across the park and posed for photos in front of a historic church.
Protesters and other witnesses on the scene said the officers used tear gas to push the protesters from the park, but Attorney General William Barr told “Face the Nation” following the incident that “no gas” or chemical irritants were used.
The demonstrations in Portland and Washington were sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death has reignited calls for an end to police brutality and racial injustice.