Current Use of Unidentified Police Forces
In the first week of June, armed agents were deployed in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC to disperse protesters. The incident incited public outcry not only due to the use of force against peaceful protesters, but also the fact that none of the agents had visible identification, such as name tags or badge numbers. This created mass confusion over what agency the law enforcement officers belonged to. In Portland this past week, a similar incident occurred where federal officials wearing camouflage and in unmarked vehicles were used to deescalate protests. In both incidents, the armed officers used tactics such as tear gas and projectiles, injuring numerous civilians. At Lafayette Square, Amelia Brace, an Australian journalist, reported that her cameraman, Tim Myers, was rammed by a police shield, despite holding a news camera. A viral video from Portland showed protester Donavan La Bella unconscious and bleeding on the ground after reportedly being shot by an impact munition. Despite claims that federal officers are solely utilized to combat violence, the deployment of unmarked police forces is a threat to the constitutional rights of protesters. In order to prevent abuse of police and militia power, Congress must enact federal legislation to mandate visible identification on law enforcement officers.
Dangers of a “Secret Police”
Without visible identification on federal officials, American citizens are unable to immediately know whether they are being formally arrested, leading to terrifying situations. For example, Mark Pettibone, a Portland protester, claimed that he was taken from a peaceful protest by men in military uniforms and driven to a federal courthouse in an unmarked van without being told why. These events sound as if they occurred in a tyrannical regime, not in a country that prides itself on its freedom of speech and assembly. Pettibone and those who have experienced similar abuses then face difficulties when trying to report their perpetrators due to the lack of identification. This tactic also opens the way for radical right-wing civilian groups to pose as law enforcement and kidnap protesters. According to Aki Peritz, a former CIA counterintelligence analyst, “All it takes is one of these similar-kitted out militiamen groups to start grabbing folks off the street as well,” for there to be violent pushback, which would drastically escalate the already-tense situation. The current lack of accountability from law enforcement creates a dangerous environment that enables police corruption and radical militias.
Numerous experts have argued that the actions of law enforcement violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution due to the unreasonable use of force. One prominent example is the video of Minneapolis officers using rubber bullets to enforce a curfew, despite the fact that victims were on their own private porch. Another viral video revealed Georgia officers arresting two students by smashing their car windows and tasing them, despite no show of resistance. Additionally, the detainment of nonviolent protesters by Homeland Security goes against the First Amendment right of peaceful protest. Without being able to identify these officers, the task of prosecuting them for violating the Constitution would be made much more difficult.
Despite public outcry, law enforcement agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, and the Trump administration have refused to back down or apologize. When asked about the criticism towards federal agents deployed in various cities, President Trump stated that “They grab a lot of people and jail the leaders,” who are “anarchists.” In Washington, law enforcement officers who were dispatched in the June protests near the White House reportedly refused to specify their agency. When pressed by reporters, some merely said they were affiliated with the Justice Department. The Bureau of Prisons later confirmed that the agency sent the tactical teams, but the forces were not wearing identifying uniforms because “they [were] serving a broader mission.” The common argument by federal officials seems to be that law enforcement officers are simply doing their job of quelling violent protests and do not have to answer to the demands of local leaders. However, reports of violence towards peaceful protesters have shown that some officers have gone from enforcing peace to abusing their power. In Seattle, videos were taken of police macing demonstrators and a nurse being pepper-sprayed while trying to help another protester. In Richmond, police tackled and handcuffed protesters at Monroe Park with witnesses claiming they heard officers yelling, “If they’re in the park, grab them.” Numerous similar accounts reveal that new measures must be taken to ensure accountability—police identification laws are the first step.
The issue of police accountability amidst the protests has already reached Congress. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton have announced that they are introducing a bill to the House that would require on-duty law enforcement officers to “display their agency name, their own last name and their identification number.” This move comes after The Nation reported that both the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had obtained new classification measures earlier this year that allows agents to withhold information from the public, such as names, job titles, and salaries. With the rise in secrecy from federal agencies, Irvin McCullough, deputy director of legislation at the Government Accountability Project, stated that Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation would be “a step forward to secure transparency and seek accountability.” Passing this bill should be a top priority for lawmakers in Congress in order to protect their constituents.
The deployment of federal law enforcement in the US over the past months mirrors the actions of tyrannical regimes where police agencies used to violently suppress political opponents. Incidents of abuse towards protesters directly contradict claims made by the Trump administration that federal agents are solely utilized to suppress violence and are no threat to the public. In order to protect Americans’ constitutional rights, on-duty officers must be mandated to show overt identifying information so that they can be easily reported for any misconduct. After all, a democracy is based on a system of checks and balances; police should not be an exception.