Jarring videos show law enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plucking protesters from the streets of Portland and stuffing them in unmarked vehicles before driving away. The agents, clad in the same camouflage pattern that I wore as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, are not readily identifiable either by name or by agency. US Customs and Border Protection -- an agency under the DHS -- admitted to being involved in arresting protesters and issued a statement to CNN that read, "Violent anarchists have organized events in Portland over the last several weeks with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property, as well as, injure federal officers and agents. These criminal actions will not be tolerated."
Last week, the US Attorney for the District of Oregon requested an investigation into the federal response, and the Inspectors General of both the DHS and the Justice Department have launched investigations into allegations the federal law enforcement personnel acted improperly.
But Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of DHS, has called the protesters "violent extremists" and repeatedly cast them as dangerous criminals while the President retweeted a post likening the protesters to a "domestic terrorist paramilitary group." Meanwhile, teams of tactical border officers similar to the ones deployed in Portland have been sent to Seattle.
Blurring the line between the military and law enforcement is a risky proposition, with Portland offering a striking glimpse of the results. The DHS officers in Portland are more reminiscent of the special operators and the 10th Mountain Division infantry soldiers I supported in Afghanistan than the police officers I expect to see serving and protecting American communities.
Except there is no war in the United States, and law enforcement organizations should not be trained and equipped to act as if they are in one. Yet the Trump administration would have us believe that protesters are enemies who must be defeated in combat. And against this backdrop, the DHS agents acting at the behest of the Trump administration have behaved in ways that are unacceptable even in armed conflict -- apprehending apparently peaceful protesters and beating others who posed no meaningful threat. Unsurprisingly, the militarized federal response and the heavy-handed tactics have escalated the state of affairs in Portland, and Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear gassed on Thursday when he joined crowds of protesters.
As if plain observations from Portland weren't convincing enough, studies suggest that militarized law enforcement is unhelpful for police and bad for community safety. One study in 2018, for example, found that "militarized policing fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime" and "may diminish police reputation in the mass public." Another study found a "positive and statistically significant relationship" between a Defense Department program that funnels surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement age