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Federal Agents Lacking Insignia Raise Accountability Concerns

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6/7/2020 Sadie Gurman, Michael M. Phillips
a group of people standing in front of a crowd © Ian Talley/The Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration’s deployment of hundreds of officers in military-style riot gear, sometimes without identifying insignia, has stirred tensions with demonstrators and concerns among watchdog groups and lawmakers about accountability.

Attorney General William Barr has sent hundreds of agents from the Justice Department’s law-enforcement units—the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the federal Bureau of Prisons, in particular—to conduct crowd control and investigate crimes. Adding in thousands of National Guard troops from 10 states, plus local police, makes for a confusing combination. 

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Many of the officers whose agencies aren’t identifiable by markings on their uniforms are from federal Bureau of Prisons tactical teams. They normally respond to riots behind bars, where, officials said, the agency they work for is understood and such markings are generally unnecessary. As the violence escalated, Mr. Barr temporarily empowered the bureau to make arrests in the continuing protests, according to a law-enforcement official. The bureau said in a statement that its officers are highly trained and capable in such scenarios.

“I probably should have done a better job of marking them nationally as the agency,” Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said Thursday. “But I assure you no one was specifically told, to my knowledge, not to identify themselves.” 

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Many local police departments require officers to have some sort of identification, including their names, on their uniforms. The Justice Department under the Obama administration criticized the Ferguson, Mo., police force after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown for allowing its officers to work without nameplates, calling them “a near-universal requirement of sound policing practices.”

Rachel Harmon, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s civil rights division who specialized in criminal cases against law-enforcement officials, said she knows of no federal law requiring U.S. officers to identify their agency, either visually or verbally.

That said, most federal law-enforcement agencies require officers in tactical gear to have patches or markings on their uniforms that identify their parent agencies, except in undercover situations, former law-enforcement officials said. Federal agents don’t typically wear name badges on their uniforms.

All uniformed military personnel performing security duty around the White House and on the streets of Washington, D.C., are from National Guard units, according to U.S. officials.

Army National Guard soldiers wear one “tape,” or label, with the soldier’s last name and another that says “U.S. Army.” On their left sleeve, they wear patches that identify the unit they are serving under. On their right sleeve, they might wear a patch from a unit they served with in combat. One soldier spotted in D.C. this week wore the Maryland National Guard patch on his left sleeve and, on his right sleeve, the eagle of the 101st Airborne Division, with which he served in Afghanistan.

Overseas, commanders sometimes order their troops to “sterilize” their uniforms by removing identifying tapes and patches. A U.S. official said that National Guard commanders had not given such an order to the troops sent to Washington.

The Air National Guard is changing the style of its uniforms and bringing back unit patches, but the practice isn’t consistent enough to guarantee that a passerby will be able to identify which unit an airman belongs to. But the uniform—some airmen wear flight suits—strongly suggests military service.

The lack of clearly identifiable markings on the uniforms of law-enforcement authorities can contribute to public lack of trust in those officers and undermines their accountability. “They can’t be held accountable if the public doesn’t know—and can’t know—who they are and to whom they report,” said Ms. Harmon, now a law professor at the University of Virginia.

Earlier this week authorities in California arrested a man dressed as a National Guardsman who was patrolling the streets of Los Angeles with two loaded weapons; he was arrested after actual guardsmen noticed his uniform had the wrong patches.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) wrote Mr. Trump requesting information about the roles of each agency on the streets of Washington and the responsibilities of federal troops, saying she was worried about an “increased militarization and lack of clarity that may increase chaos.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and at least one other lawmaker have introduced legislation that would force federal officers to identify themselves.

D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham said officers are required to wear clear insignia and a number. He said a priority in planning for future operations would be to ask the federal government to make sure its officers are clearly identifiable.

Write to Sadie Gurman at sadie.gurman@wsj.com and Michael M. Phillips at michael.phillips@wsj.com

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