Portlandia Redux: How using uninvited federal LEOs to police public protest will backfire

Portlandia, a satirical television series, makes fun of Portland’s often eccentric hipster community. It is fiction. But the deployment of heavily armed federal law enforcement officers (LEOs), coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, many without organizational identification and dressed in military fatigues, is not.

Though allegedly dispatched to protect federal property such as monuments and court houses, these officers have confronted and intimidated protesters and over the past few weeks regularly used tear gas, stun grenades, and other less-than-lethal munitions to control and disperse peaceful crowds. This is in sure violation of the right to assembly and to free speech. More troubling, have been instances where these LEOs have grabbed protestors off the streets (away from Federal areas), often targeting journalists, and bundled them into unmarked vans.

Rightly so, protesters, local and state politicians, and members of the news media have expressed deep concern about these tactics and many criminal justice professionals (from practitioners to scholars) have rapidly changed their opinion from “hey this is unusual, to this is plain wrong.” The deployment of federal LEOs without the express permission of the mayor or the governor raises all sorts of moral, legal and civil rights concerns.

Indeed the mayor of Portland and the governor of Oregon have publicly expressed their outrage with the federal government deploying these LEOs to police the protests. More specifically, “The attorney general of Oregon has filed suit against various federal agencies and officers involved and officers involved in one arrest” And some nongovernmental organizations such as the American Civil liberties Union have sued the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Marshals Service because they perceive that these action violate that constitutional rights of protesters.

Despite how immoral and legally questionable these tactics are, there are other serious concerns, which have received less attention.

To begin with from an operational standpoint, although the federal LEOs appear to be working in close proximity to the Portland PD, it does not seem like they coordinating their activities with them and this is leading to increased confrontations with protesters, and with the possibility of more violence, injuries, for both protesters and the police.

Also extremely problematic is the fact that there is no guarantee that the individuals in military fatigues are bonafide LEOs. Without discernible identification, how do you distinguish between a federal LEO and an alt/far-right paramilitary group, like so called Boogaloo Boys or the Proud Boys. There’s already credible evidence that agent provocateurs (with various political affiliations and motivations) are initiating violence at and engaging in property damage and physical violence at otherwise peaceful protests throughout the United States. Allowing heavily armed and unidentified people dressed in military attire to sweep up protesters also means that local public safety is failing to protect the safety of their citizens. This is a sure sign of authoritarianism, where people disappear and are kidnapped by unidentifiable agents.

Most importantly, although some federal LEOs may actively welcome the opportunity to participate in this type of assignment, it will ultimately backfire. The opportunity to the kick asses of protesters may temporarily get them out of their current work assignment and break up the monotony of their job. Perhaps they like the change of scenery or participating in riot control duties without being properly trained; it provides them with a little bit of “excitement.” One has to wonder, however, if this type of work detail was in the minds of the men (and by all accounts they appear to be men) who joined these organizations. By all accounts, what they are being asked to do is not real policing. It’s not really crime fighting and it’s not improving public safety where it is most needed. In most cases, riot control is not what they were primarily trained to do, nor is this their calling. History won’t forget these men and their actions. When and if there is a congressional inquiry, like there was with Waco, it’s going to be an embarrassing moment when these officers and their superiors are asked to testify. Moreover a decade or so from now when they look back at their careers in law enforcement, what are they going to say or feel when asked why they participated in this kind of operation? Will they feel shame?

Federal LEOs presence sparks increased confrontations and possible violence between protestors and local law enforcement. Quite simply, if neither the mayor nor the governor has invited them, the Federal LEOs don’t have jurisdiction (meaning legal authority) and local law enforcement should immediately arrest them and local prosecutors should charge them with impersonating a police officer, performing illegal arrests, detention, and kidnapping.