UPDATE (4:21 p.m. PT) — U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said Friday he wants an investigation into actions of federal officers who have pulled Portland protesters off the street and into unmarked vehicles.
Federal officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection have come under significant scrutiny after OPB first reported Thursday that they were involved in constitutionally questionable arrests in Portland.
The officers, along with employees of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Federal Protective Service, have had an increased presence in the city as protests over police brutality have continued for more than six weeks.
"Based on news accounts circulating that allege federal law enforcement detained two protesters without probable cause, I have requested the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General to open a separate investigation directed specifically at the actions of DHS personnel," Williams said in his statement.
At least one officer with the Marshals Service is under investigation for severely injuring a Portland protester July 11 by shooting him in the face with an impact munition round.
In his statement, Williams said federal officers have spent the past 50 nights in Portland defending the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse and other federal property. That building has seen significant graffiti, and been a frequent gathering place for protesters opposing police violence.
"[Federal officers] have rebuffed efforts to enter the building by force and have been met with an onslaught of commercial fireworks, laser strikes, glass, mortars, paint and anything else near at hand," Williams said. "They have endeavored to find the individuals within the crowd who are committing these violent acts and arrest them in a manner that is safe for both the officers and nearby non-violent protesters."
However, Williams said in "limited instances" federal officers may have engaged in questionable conduct, such as the unmarked vehicle arrests, and that he believes investigations by the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General are appropriate.
Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender, said any arrest without probable cause violates the law.
“It’s a fundamental constitutional value that people in this country are free to walk the streets without fear of secret arrest,” Hay said. “That circumstance raises concerns that the arrests occurred without probable cause.”
In a statement Friday, CBP acknowledged it had carried out at least one of the arrests in question. The agency defended its actions, saying it was arresting someone suspected of criminal activity and needed to remove them from the area because of threat from a "violent mob." Video of that arrest posted online does not show anyone trying to interfere with officers, but many people can be heard asking the officers for their names and who they work for.
Two protesters who spoke to OPB about their arrest Thursday said they were alone when "four or five agents" stopped an unmarked minivan in front of them and grabbed one of the men. The federal officers did not have clearly seen insignia on their uniforms, and the protesters said the officers did not identify themselves when making the arrest.
In its statement, CBP defended not having officer names on their uniforms, saying identification would pose a threat to the officers.
"The names of the agents were not displayed due to recent doxing incidents against law enforcement personnel who serve and protect our country," CBP wrote.
Civil rights advocates and Oregon lawmakers — both federal and local — have strongly condemned the actions of federal officers.
Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley took to Twitter to criticize President Donald Trump and the Department of Homeland Security's focus on protests in Portland.
"Get your DHS lackey and uninvited paramilitary actions out of my state. Our communities are not a stage for your twisted reelection campaign," Merkley said.
.@realDonaldTrump: Get your DHS lackey and uninvited paramilitary actions out of my state. Our communities are not a stage for your twisted reelection campaign.— Senator Jeff Merkley (@SenJeffMerkley) July 17, 2020
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, also said the Oregon congressional delegation has asked for an immediate inspector investigation into the "violent actions of unrequested federal law enforcement officials here in Portland."
Williams' call for an investigation stands in contrast with comments Thursday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. Speaking to Fox News, Morgan called Portland protesters criminals and said DHS and the U.S. Department of Justice would be ramping up federal response in Oregon.
“I don’t want to get ahead of the president and his announcement,” Morgan said, “but the Department of Justice is going to be involved in this, DHS is going to be involved in this, and we’re really going to take a stand across the board."
Both Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have said they want to see a withdrawal of federal officers at protests.