Justice department watchdog probes use of federal forces

The inspector-general of the Department of Justice has begun examining the Trump administration’s use of force against protesters in Portland, Oregon, and at Lafayette Square near the White House.

The announcement on Thursday came as President Donald Trump has faced pressure over the tactics used by federal law enforcement to forcibly disperse protests against police violence in recent months.

In Portland this month, officers from the justice department and the Department of Homeland Security have used tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades against demonstrators outside the federal courthouse.

DHS officers have on at least one occasion used unmarked vehicles to arrest protesters. In a separate widely publicised incident, a US Navy veteran was beaten by what was identified as officers from the US Marshals Service, a division of the justice department.

On June 1, federal law enforcement cleared peaceful protesters from a park near the White House, allowing Mr Trump to walk to a nearby church for photos of him holding a Bible.

The controversial events at Lafayette Square came after William Barr, the US attorney-general, deployed a variety of justice department units on to the streets of the US capital, including some who did not wear insignia.

Michael Horowitz, the justice department inspector-general, has “opened an investigation into use of force allegations involving DoJ law enforcement personnel in Portland, Oregon in July 2020”, his office said on Thursday.

The statement added that there would also be “a review to examine the DoJ’s and its law enforcement components’ roles and responsibilities in responding to protest activity and civil unrest in Washington, DC, and in Portland, Oregon, over the prior two months”.

The review will include an examination of the instructions and training giving to justice department personnel, compliance with rules governing the use of rubber bullets and tear gas and “compliance with applicable identification requirements, rules of engagement, and legal authorities”.

Mr Horowitz said his office’s work would be co-ordinated with similar investigations by watchdogs at the DHS and at the Department of the Interior, whose Park Police service had responsibility for Lafayette Square.

On Thursday, the inspector-general for DHS told lawmakers his office was investigating allegations that “DHS law enforcement personnel improperly detained and transported protesters” last week in Portland.

Though inspectors-general can generally only issue reports on their findings, their work often reveals wrongdoing, waste or abuses of power. They can also make referrals for prosecution or other action.

Mr Trump has sought to cow these watchdogs’ oversight efforts this year, removing five inspectors-general in quick succession.