A new report out from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General examined that agency’s response to last summer’s racial justice protests in Portland.
It found DHS was unprepared when out-of-town federal law enforcement officers first arrived in the city. But the inspector general found DHS did have the legal authority to send officers to protect the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, as well as other federal property.
The report also revealed 755 DHS officers participated in the protection of federal buildings in Portland, under an operation that cost more than $12 million. Few of the officers had been trained in riot and crowd control, even though that was their primary mission. Officers reported hundreds of injuries.
“Specifically, not all officers completed required training; had the necessary equipment; and used consistent uniforms, devices, and operational tactics when responding to the events in Portland,” the DHS Inspector General found.
Last summer’s protests in Portland quickly became a political drum to beat for then-President Trump’s reelection campaign, which was centered on a message of law and order amid nationwide protests for racial justice. Scenes from the protests played nightly on conservative media outlets, like Fox News, where commentators repeated Trump’s derisions of Portland as an “anarchist jurisdiction.”
The inspector general faulted DHS for not having a strategy to address the possibility for limited law enforcement assistance from state and local agencies.
On July 22, the Portland City Council voted to prevent Portland Police from cooperating with federal law enforcement officers as they tear gassed and fought with protesters on a nightly basis. While Oregon State Police also assisted in protecting the Mark Hatfield federal courthouse starting July 30, that too was only temporary, as state troopers pulled back from those duties in mid-August.
The Federal Protective Service, which is part of DHS, guards and secures federal property. In Portland, the agency is responsible for protecting 34 facilities, but has only seven full-time employees assigned to the area, according to the inspector general’s report.
On June 26, FPS created a regional plan called “Operation Diligent Valor” to “prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from attacks on federal property” in the Pacific Northwest.
As of Aug. 31, the estimated cost of that operation was $12.3 million. Protesters caused $1.6 million in damages to the federal courthouse in Portland, the report states.
The courthouse in downtown Portland was first attacked on May 29, the report states.
On June 3, the Federal Protective Service asked for assistance. Federal officers began arriving from out of town the next day.
“Officers deployed to Portland included those from special response teams, special operations groups, rapid protection forces, and other officers from FPS, [U.S. Customs and Boarder Patrol], [U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement], and United States Secret Service,” the inspector general report states.
During the summer, DHS officers made 62 arrests.
The report criticized DHS officers for not wearing consistent uniforms.
“Officers from FPS, CBP, and ICE all responded to Portland wearing their respective component issued uniforms,” federal officials stated. “During the operations both citizens and Congress raised concerns regarding a lack of proper identification on officers’ uniforms.”
OPB first reported on cases of federal officers without clear identification wearing militarized uniforms and arresting protesters using unmarked vehicles.
DHS responded to the findings in a memo included with the report. It noted, the “circumstances in Portland, OR were particularly challenging because of the violence directed against law enforcement officers” that was “persistent” over time. DHS said support from local law enforcement was “prohibited by their political leadership from cooperating with federal counterparts.” The agency also noted the techniques used by protesters in Portland were “infrequently seen by law enforcement.” DHS cited lasers and fireworks as examples.
Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation said the report shows DHS was heavy-handed in its response to racial justice protests and unprepared to safely handle the unrest.
“This report confirms some of the worst fears I expressed along with the delegation about Donald Trump’s slapdash and knee-jerk response to last summer’s overwhelmingly peaceful protests in Portland,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Paramilitary officers dispatched by the Trump administration into my hometown with incomplete weapons training, inconsistent tactics and a shadowy mission added up to a toxic mix that inflamed the situation instead of managing it.”
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, also a Democrat, said she called for the investigation and was reviewing it’s findings and recommendations.
“The Trump Administration flamed tensions and sparked fear among the people of Portland for months,” she said in a statement. “I will continue to work my colleagues and with the Biden Administration to make sure Federal law enforcement have the training and tools they need to appropriately respond to conflict — in the very limited circumstances they may be needed — without resorting to militarized overreaction in violation of the Constitutional rights of Americans.”
The DHS Inspector General also found federal officers didn’t have the correct protective equipment during their deployment. From mid-June to July 30, DHS officers reported 689 injuries that included blurred vision and headaches caused by high-intensity lasers used by protesters and temporary hearing loss from fireworks, as well as wounds from projectiles.
“Other officers said there were not enough less-lethal devices and munitions to respond effectively,” the report states. Federal officers on the ground used thousands of munitions, often indiscriminately, in their efforts to control crowds at the protests. Protesters who were not engaging in property destruction often reported significant injuries from the weapons, some of them critical.
“Finally, officers also reported problems with radio communications, such as the inability to communicate with DHS officers from other components,” the report states.
The report found officers were not property trained in how to respond to crowd control and riots. The inspector general examined the training records for a sample of the officers who deployed to Portland. Of the 63 officers examined, only seven had riot and crowd control training, the report found.
“DHS law enforcement operations in Portland were mainly focused on riot and crowd control activities,” the report stated. “Deploying officers who are not properly trained increases the risk of officers acting outside of their authority.”
The office of inspector general recommended DHS establish a plan and policy so different parts of the agency can better support one another when they respond to “civil disturbances” involving federal property. It also recommended establishing contingency plans in case DHS can’t rely on local law enforcement’s assistance.
DHS said it agreed with both of the report’s recommendations and would follow through on both.