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Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf: Federal officers in Portland ‘are not the Gestapo, storm troopers or thugs’

President Donald J. Trump listens as Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad F. Wolf delivers remarks at the White House Coronavirus Task Force coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Friday, March 20, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf defended the federal response to the unrest in Portland, Oregon, saying officers and agents “were abandoned” as they were attacked nightly by violent instigators and blaming local and state officials for failing to help protect federal properties in the city.

“Our law enforcement officers are not the Gestapo, storm troopers or thugs,” Wolf told senators during a testimony Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Wolf is testifying on his agency’s use of federal agents in response to weeks-long protests in Portland following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Wolf and Republicans on the committee drew attention to vandalisms and fires in the city, with some showing clips of the unrest during the hearing. Local and state officials, meanwhile, have said that the federal government’s aggressive response only fueled the violence, as officers clashed nightly with the crowd. Critics have also called out the Trump administration for sending federal officers to Portland against the wishes of local and state officials.

“Enforcing federal law is not by invitation,” Wolf said, maintaining that he reached out to local and state officials, both to offer and ask for assistance, but to no avail. “We continued to ask local and state police to help and get involved … If violence is directed (at the federal courthouse), they would not engage, they would not make arrests.”

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Department of Homeland Security officers have arrested 99 people, saying the lack of action from local police forced them to make their own arrests, Wolf said. He added that the arrests happened either at the federal courthouse or within two or three blocks of the building.

The agency said 277 federal officers, tasked with protecting the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, have been injured. Officers were attacked with bricks, baseball bats, explosives and other violent weapons, Wolf said, adding that several may have had permanent eye damage.

There’s no comprehensive tally of how many protesters have been injured by federal or local officers in Portland. Five protesters who said they were attacked by police sued the city in June. Two advocacy groups sued Trump administration officials in July over federal officers’ use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets against protesters.

Wolf said his department’s officers do not use rubber bullets after he was asked by Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, about an incident in which a student was shot with a rubber bullet.

Sen. Ron Johnson, the committee’s chairman, said the violent protests have left law enforcement incapable of dealing with the other problem of rising crimes in urban cities.

“When you do nothing to stop riots, you unleash anarchy, and when you encourage criminals that unleash anarchy, people die,” Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the committee’s ranking member, said the Department of Homeland Security “chose to escalate conflicts” in Portland, putting both officers and civilians at risk. Although he acknowledged that the unrest in Portland required a response from the agency, Peters and other Democrats said the department has failed to respond with the same urgency on violence and threats from white supremacy groups.

“Terrorism is terrorism, whether it fits the ideological narrative of DHS’ leadership or not,” Peters said.

Wolf’s testimony comes a week after Oregon and federal authorities reached an agreement to begin withdrawing agents from Portland. Wolf said earlier that the department’s agents would remain in Portland to protect the federal courthouse and other buildings, and that they would rely on state police to deal with violent protesters outside fence lines.

Wolf said there has been a “noticeable decrease” in violence directed at the federal courthouse in recent days, but the unrest continues. Last week, Portland police declared one of the gatherings a riot as protesters began rattling a fence surrounding the federal building.

Civil liberties concerns

The use of Homeland Security resources has raised questions from legal and other experts who say the department’s officers and agents – typically tasked with patrolling remote border locations, enforcing immigration laws and investigating national security threats – are unfit to police an urban area.

During his testimony, Wolf maintained that the agency’s officers and agents are trained in deescalation, saying they have experience in quelling riots at immigration detention centers.

Wolf and other Trump administration officials have been sued by Oregon’s attorney general over what state officials said were illegal seizures of protesters. The lawsuit came after a protester said that unidentified officers in military fatigues picked him up without an explanation, placed him in an unmarked van and took him to a holding facility for questioning. The protester, who did not face charges, was later released. The lawsuit cites a similar incident captured in a viral video.

The incidents raised concerns among civil rights advocates. But last month, a federal judge denied state officials’ request for a restraining order that would’ve blocked federal officers from unwarranted arrests. The judge ruled that the allegations rely on “too little evidence” to justify a restraining order, and state officials failed to show that the alleged illegal seizures were widespread.

Advocates have also raised concerns about the federal officers’ use of tear gas against protesters.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is sending dozens more federal officers and agents to other cities where they say violent crime has worsened. Officials sought to draw a distinction between this effort and the federal government’s response in Portland, describing the new deployments as an expansion of a federal initiative meant to help local and state officials fight crime.

The Justice Department is sending more than 200 federal agents and officers to Chicago and more than 100 to Albuquerque, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee. Officials said the deployments are part of an expansion of Operation Legend, a crime initiative that was launched in Kansas City, Missouri last month.

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© 2020 USA Today