Attorneys with the ACLU of Oregon say more legal complaints should be expected against law enforcement agencies engaging in what the organization calls "unconstitutional" practices by police against protesters, journalists and legal observers in Portland.
ACLU attorneys made the announcement Friday, July 17, the day after a federal judge in Portland gave the group permission to add the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals Service to an existing lawsuit alleging unconstitutional practices by law enforcement officers. The ACLU complaint, initially filed June 28 in conjunction with Portland-based journalists and legal observers, was an attempt to stop Portland Police from intimidating or using less than lethal force against neutral parties.
By adding federal officers to the lawsuit, the group hopes the courts also will make them subject to the same temporary restraining order that already has been applied to Portland Police. The order prohibits the local police force from using rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, flash bang grenades or other less than lethal crowd control methods on groups that are likely to include journalists, photographers, or legal observers.
Shortly before July 4, the Trump administration announced it would send federal agents to Portland to protect federal buildings amid ongoing protests against police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. ACLU attorneys said Friday that those federal forces have included Customs and Border Protection officers from the Department of Homeland Security.
Friday's ACLU announcement came on the heels of multiple reports of protesters being arrested by unidentified federal agents, without warning, and growing accounts of federal officers using unmarked vehicles to nab protesters off the street, as reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting. In one instance, a peaceful protester was shot in the head with an unspecified munition, causing serious injury and hospitalization of the protester.
"The answer to protests against police brutality can't be bringing in federal agents to engage in more brutality," Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney for ACLU, said Friday. "This is not law and order, this is lawlessness, and unconstitutional behavior."
Kelly Simon, interim legal director of ACLU Oregon, said lawsuits have been filed to "push back on escalating militarized tactics" that have been used by cops.
"Unfortunately, while we were successful in getting temporary restraining orders against our local law enforcement, the Trump administration has refused to comply with those orders," Simon said, noting the initial order doesn't have any legal bearing on federal agencies. The ACLU hopes to change that. "You will be hearing more from us."
Billy Williams, U.S. attorney for Oregon , said DHS and the Office of Inspector General will look into the complaints.
"The overarching goal of law enforcement is public protection and, during tense and dangerous situations, de-escalation," Williams said in a statement, noting federal officers have been operating under those goals.
"In limited instances, their conduct has been questioned and the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General appropriately opened an investigation into the use of less lethal ammunition directed at a protestor last week," Williams said. "Based on news accounts circulating that allege federal law enforcement detained two protestors 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."
Oregon lawmakers call for investigation
In addition to the ACLU's expanded legal action, Oregon lawmakers have called for an investigation into the arrest and detainment tactics being used by federal agents.
U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, with U.S. Reps Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici, are calling on the Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security offices of Inspector General to investigate what they call the "unrequested presence and violent actions of federal forces in Portland."
Earlier this week, they sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Gen. William Barr and Chad Wolf, acting Homeland Security secretary, condemning the tactics used against protesters by federal agents in Oregon.
"First, they are deploying paramilitary forces with no identification indicating who they are or who they work for. Second, these agents are snatching people off the street with no underlying justification," Sen. Merkley stated in a July 17 news release. "Both of these acts are profound offenses against Americans. We demand not only that these acts end, but also that they remove their forces immediately from our state."
"Oregonians must be able to exercise their First Amendment rights safely, without being picked up and detained by unidentified federal officers," Bonamici said. "We will not rest until we get answers on behalf of Oregonians."
A previous version of this story misstated the type of munition used by federal agents that caused a head injury to a protester. The less than lethal weapon has not been independently confirmed.
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