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Federal officers using more marked SUVs, changing military-style fatigues in response to criticism

Protesters clamor against police brutality for the 50th day in a row, on July 16, 2020, at Portland, Oregon's Federal Courthouse and are met with tear gas and "less-lethal" munitions and many arrests. (John Rudoff/Sipa USA/TNS)

Federal officers assigned to respond to Portland protests haven’t started to pull out yet and remain inside the downtown federal courthouse to work with Oregon State Police, according to testimony Tuesday before a congressional subcommittee.

But the government is making some changes to respond to criticism of tactics used by the extra federal forces here and the paramilitary look of their uniforms.

“DHS will not back away from our responsibilities to protect federal property, the people using those properties and our law enforcement officers,‘” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

He didn’t say how many of the officers remain, but court documents have said 114 from the Federal Protective Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Enforcement.

At the same time, officers have moved to limit their use of unmarked vans in any arrests.

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Cuccinelli also told the Senate committee that the government is working to switch out the camouflage-uniforms of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers with solid green ones.

Cuccinelli said the officers came with “what they had,” noting that Customs and Border Patrol agents typically work at the southern border and they wear camouflage uniforms there.

Their regular uniforms still read “police” on the front and back, with their agency patches on their shoulders, he said. The agency is “moving rapidly to replace” them, he said.

Cuccinelli testified during a hearing on free speech and protests held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.

He also talked about injuries to officers during the ongoing Portland protests against police violence and racism in the United States that had often ended late at night with fires on the portico outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse, broken windows and damaged security cameras.

About 140 federal officers have sustained 277 injuries from objects thrown at them, including fireworks, rocks and frozen water bottles, he said.

While holding up a laser like those confiscated from some people arrested in Portland, Cuccinelli said the officers “haven’t seen anything like” the prolonged and frequent use of the high-powered green lasers directed at them outside the courthouse. He said they’re used to try to disorient or blind the officers.

Some officers suffered “days-long blindness” but so far their sight has returned, he said.

While Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley decried the federal presence for ratcheting up tensions in the city and using excessive force against peaceful protesters, Cuccinelli said Portland police have declared riots or unlawful assemblies on recent nights since the federal officers have retreated.

Cuccinelli sought to distinguish “rioters” from “protesters.”

“For those several long weeks as state and local officials put politics ahead of public safety, rioters knew that they could attack federal property and the officers defending it and then flee from the federal area of operations without any consequences from state or local law enforcement,” his department said in a statement.

“Now that state and local leaders have finally agreed to step up and do their job, would-be rioters face the kind of coordinated enforcement response they should have been in place all along,” the statement said.

Last Thursday, about 100 state police troopers were assigned to help guard the courthouse and federal officers have stayed inside following an agreement reached with Gov. Kate Brown.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, mentioned that he wrote and passed the law to protect pilots from the danger of lasers, then turned Cuccinelli’s attention to a violent encounter between a Portland man and a federal officer last month.

He said he was concerned by a deputy marshal’s baton strikes against peaceful Navy veteran Christopher David that were caught on video on July 18.

David stood still, didn’t react, “but yet the strikes keep coming,” Whitehouse said. He noted that David was wearing a sweatshirt and holding no weapons, taking a “pretty damn hard beating.”

“It’s episodes like that that cause legitimate concern,” Whitehouse said.

Cuccinelli said the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the baton strikes to David and the firing of an impact munition at the head of Portland protester Donavan La Bella, who was hit as his hands were in the air across the street from the courthouse on July 10.

“We do investigate every single use of force. There are many of them going on related to Portland,’’ he said.

Cuccinelli denied that federal officers have targeted any journalists, who have documented dozens of injuries from federal officers’ use of impact munitions.

Some are suing and won a temporary restraining order from a judge, who has barred federal and local officers from threatening or assaulting journalists or legal observers. The order exempts journalists from having to follow dispersal orders when riots or unlawful assemblies are declared.

That judge’s order, Cuccinelli said, prompted some violent activists dressed all in black to place the words “press” on their shirts or helmets, “which makes it hard to distinguish one from the other.”

U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon has set another hearing Thursday to consider modifying his order to require more identifiable clothing worn by both federal officers and the media at protests.

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© 2020 The Oregonian