“While local police are often identified, there is no federal statute requiring it. This bill anticipates and seeks to prevent issues we have seen with federal police in recent weeks.”
When reports surfaced last week of civilian protesters in Portland, Oregon, being whisked away by unidentified agents, the national outcry was swift. In response, New York House Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton are working on a bill that would require federal law enforcement officials to clearly identify themselves.
“As we have seen, when police are needed, it is often all ‘hands on deck,’” Norton said in a statement. “While local police are often identified, there is no federal statute requiring it. This bill anticipates and seeks to prevent issues we have seen with federal police in recent weeks.”
If passed, the The Law Enforcement Identification Transparency Act of 2020 would require on-duty federal agents to display the name of their agency, their last name, and their individual identification number. The bill would also require an inspector general of the Justice Department to conduct routine audits to ensure compliance and report the results to Congress.
Oregon state Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum alleged in a lawsuit filed last week that masked federal officers arrested people far from the courthouse and government property and secreted them away in unmarked cars. According to a statement provided by the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, CBP agents verbally identified themselves and wore CBP insignia, but neither their names nor ID numbers were displayed, “due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country.”
But this level of secrecy poses a dangerous threat to civil liberties and democracy. Without transparency, citizens may not know who is arresting them, what entity is detaining them, or who to report for abuses.
“The idea that there’s a threat to a federal courthouse and the federal authorities are going to swoop in and do whatever they want to do without any cooperation and coordination with state and local authorities is extraordinary outside the context of a civil war,” Michael Dorf, a professor of constitutional law at Cornell University, told the Associated Press. “It is a standard move of authoritarians to use the pretext of quelling violence to bring in force, thereby prompting a violent response and then bootstrapping the initial use of force in the first place”
The president and U.S. Attorney General William Barr are expected to announce more federal deployments to American cities on Wednesday to combat rising crime.
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Internal CBP documents obtained by The Nation revealed that federal agents in Portland were part of a domestic counterinsurgency program, called Protecting American Communities Task Force, that is able to operate indefinitely and in undisclosed locations, with drones “on standby to assist as needed.” The Department of Homeland Security created the program under the purview of President Trump’s executive order “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Activity.”
Once video footage leaked of agents abducting protesters in unmarked vehicles, Portland’s mayor demanded that the federal agents leave the city. DHS refused.
“I offered DHS support to help them locally address the situation that’s going on in Portland, and their only response was: please pack up and go home,” DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf told Fox News. “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors to do our job. We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.”
Although the vast majority of racial justice protests have been peaceful, Trump has ramped up his use of violent rhetoric—amid sliding poll numbers—to describe the political atmosphere. Framing himself as a law-and-order strongman, Monday he characterized Portland’s unrest as “worse than Afghanistan.”
“This is worse than anything anyone’s ever seen,” he said. “We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York. All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.”
Amid news that Chicago would be one of the cities targeted in the administration’s efforts to address rising violence, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she and other local officials had spoken with federal authorities and come to an understanding.
“I’ve been very clear that we welcome actual partnership,” the Democratic mayor said Tuesday after speaking with federal officials. “But we do not welcome dictatorship. We do not welcome authoritarianism, and we do not welcome unconstitutional arrest and detainment of our residents. That is something I will not tolerate.”
The decision to dispatch federal agents to American cities is playing out at a hyper-politicized moment when Trump is trying to show he is a “law-and-order” president and painting Democratic-led cities as out of control. With less than four months to go before Election Day, Trump has been serving up dire warnings that the violence would worsen if his Democratic rival Joe Biden is elected in November, as he tries to win over voters who could be swayed by that message.
“Secret police snatching Americans off of street corners and shooting rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators is something we would expect to see in an authoritarian state, not outside the White House,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a news release this week announcing her bill. “Yet, that is our current reality.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.