Protesters who have clashed with authorities in the Pacific Northwest are not just confronting local police, report the Associated Press. Some are also facing off against federal officers whose presence reflects Donald Trumpâ€™s decision to make cracking down on â€œviolent mayhemâ€ a federal priority. And it means a significant change in role for some officers.
The Department of Homeland Security has deployed officers in tactical gear from around the country, and from more than a half-dozen federal law enforcement agencies and departments, to Portland, Oregon, as part of a surge aimed at what a senior official said were people taking advantage of demonstrations to commit violence and vandalism.
â€œOnce we surged federal law enforcement officers to Portland, the agitators quickly got the message,â€ said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing operation.
The deployment represents somewhat of a departure for DHS, which was created after the September 11 attacks and is primarily focused on threats from abroad and border security. Now it is in the role of supporting Trumpâ€™s law-and-order campaign, raising questions about overstepping the duties of local law enforcement.
Portland Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis said his department did not request the assistance and did not coordinate efforts with the federal government amid often chaotic clashes that have ranged across several downtown blocks after midnight for weeks.
â€œI donâ€™t have authority to order federal officers to do things,â€ Davis told AP. â€œIt does complicate things for us.â€
Civil liberties advocates and activists have accused federal authorities of overstepping their jurisdiction and an excessive use of crowd-control measures, including using tear gas and patrolling beyond the boundaries of federal property. Portland police are prohibited from using tear gas under a recent temporary court order unless they declare a riot.
â€œDHS should go back to investigating the rise of white supremacist activity and actors who are seeking to cause violence against these peaceful protests, that is under the purview of the agencyâ€™s mission,â€ said Andrea Flores, the deputy director of immigration policy at the American Civil Liberties Union who was a DHS official during the Obama administration.
Following Trumpâ€™s 26 June executive order to protect monuments, DHS created the Protecting American Communities Task Force and sent officers from Customs and Border Protection and other agencies to Washington, D.C., Seattle and Portland.
As local governments in Washington, D.C., and Portland have stepped back to allow space for peaceful demonstrations, the Trump administration has stepped up its effort.
Among the federal forces deployed in Portland are members of an elite Border Patrol tactical team, a special operations unit that is based on the US-Mexico border and has been deployed overseas, including to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bortac members, identifiable by patches on their camouflage sleeves, were mixed in with the FBS outside the courthouse. Others in the unit, which includes snipers, have been stationed in â€œoverlookâ€ positions on the courthouseâ€™s ninth floor.
A former DHS official said Bortac agents were viewed as â€œhighly trained, valuable, scarce resourcesâ€ and would typically be used for domestic law enforcement in extraordinary circumstances. â€œThese units donâ€™t normally sit around idle,â€ said the official, who spoke on condition anonymity. â€œWhat did they get pulled off of in order to watch over statues?â€