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

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/6/2020 Kristine Phillips, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf defended the federal response to the unrest in Portland, Oregon. He blamed local and state officials for failing to protect federal properties, saying officers and agents "were abandoned" as they were attacked nightly by violent instigators.

"Our law enforcement officers are not the Gestapo, storm troopers or thugs," Wolf said Thursday before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Wolf testified on his agency's use of federal agents in response to weeks of protests in Portland after the death May 25 of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

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Wolf and Republicans on the committee drew attention to vandalism and fires in the city, and some showed clips during the hearing. Oregon officials have said the federal government's aggressive response fueled the violence, as officers clashed nightly with the crowds. Critics called out the Trump administration for sending federal officers to Portland against the wishes of local and state officials. 

a group of people wearing costumes: A federal officer points a less-lethal weapon at demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse, July 30, 2020, in Portland, Ore. © Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP A federal officer points a less-lethal weapon at demonstrators during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse, July 30, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

"Enforcing federal law is not by invitation," Wolf said, maintaining that he reached out to officials to offer and ask for assistance, 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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The lack of action from police forced Department of Homeland Security officers to make their own arrests, Wolf said. He said they arrested 99 people 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, and 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.  

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

Distrust: Mayors see political agenda in Trump's surge of federal officers to US cities

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the committee's chairman, said the violent protests have left law enforcement incapable of dealing with rising crime in cities. 

"When you do nothing to stop riots, you unleash anarchy, and when you encourage criminals that unleash anarchy, people die," Johnson said. 

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

"Terrorism is terrorism, whether it fits the ideological narrative of DHS' leadership or not," Peters said. 

A week ago, Oregon and federal authorities reached an agreement to begin withdrawing agents from Portland. Wolf said agents would remain to protect the courthouse and other buildings, and they would rely on state police to deal with violent protesters. 

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

Bill Northey wearing a suit and tie: Chad Wolf of the Department of Homeland Security says that if federal authorities left Portland, Ore., protesters would burn the courthouse down. © Alex Brandon, AP Chad Wolf of the Department of Homeland Security says that if federal authorities left Portland, Ore., protesters would burn the courthouse down.

Civil liberties concerns

The use of Homeland Security resources raised questions from legal 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 officers and agents are trained in deescalation and have experience in quelling riots at immigration detention centers. 

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

The incidents raised concerns among civil rights advocates. 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," 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. 

The Trump administration is sending dozens more federal officers and agents to other cities where it says 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. 

Operation Legend: Federal agents, officers head to Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee 

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

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf: Federal officers in Portland 'are not the Gestapo, storm troopers or thugs'


Gallery: Images from Portland show federal law-enforcement agents using military tactics to break up demonstrations against the city's wishes (INSIDER)

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