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Watchdogs to review conduct of US agents in Portland, DC

Federal officers use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Federal officers use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Tuesday, July 21, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger) (Noah Berger)

WASHINGTON – Two government watchdogs said Thursday that they had opened investigations into the conduct of federal agents responding to unrest in Portland, Oregon, following abuse of power allegations by members of Congress, local officials and the public.

The Justice Department watchdog said that it would investigate use of force allegations in Portland, while its counterpart at the Department of Homeland Security said it would examine whether officers from the agency improperly detained and transported protesters in the city last week.

The Justice Department is also examining the training and instruction provided to the federal agents who responded last month to protest activity at Lafayette Square, near the White House. Among the questions being studied are whether the agents followed department guidelines on the use of chemical agents and less lethal munitions and whether they followed identification requirements.

Democrats in Congress cheered the announcement of the investigations. The chairs of the Judiciary, Homeland Security and Oversight committees issued a joint statement saying many federal agents are dressed as soldiers, driving unmarked vehicles and refusing to identify themselves or the agencies where they work.

“Congress will continue to check this reckless Administration, but it is deeply important that these independent inspectors general get to the bottom of President Trump’s use of force against his own citizens," the statement said.

The investigations were announced amid ongoing chaos in Portland, where Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear-gassed by federal agents as he stood outside the courthouse there.

Local authorities have complained that the presence of federal agents have exacerbated tensions on the streets, while residents have accused the government of violating their constitutional rights.

Civil unrest escalated in Portland after federal agents were accused of whisking people away in unmarked cars without probable cause. And in Washington, peaceful protesters were violently cleared from the streets by federal officers using tear gas ahead of a photo op by President Donald Trump in front of a nearby church.

The decision to dispatch federal agents to American cities is playing out at a hyperpoliticized moment when Trump is grasping for a new reelection strategy after the coronavirus upended the economy, dismantling what his campaign had seen as his ticket to a second term.

Trump has seized on a moment of spiking violence in some cities, claiming it will only rise if his Democratic rival Joe Biden is elected in November and Democrats have a chance to make the police reforms they have endorsed after the killing of George Floyd and nationwide protests demanding racial justice.

The federal response to the demonstrations is likely to be a major topic of discussion next week when Attorney General William Barr appears before the House Judiciary Committee for a hearing.