Administration

US Park Police say it was a mistake to say no tear gas was used in Lafayette Square

The U.S. Park Police on Friday hedged its earlier claims it did not use tear gas to clear crowds near the White House Monday, telling Vox earlier statements were a "mistake" given that the chemical agents they used cause similar eye and lung irritation.

A Tuesday statement from Park Police said it used "smoke canisters and pepper balls" to clear "violent" protests in the area, counter to multiple reports that peaceful demonstrators were met with tear gas.

"I'm not going to say that pepper balls don't irritate you," Park Police spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Delgado told Vox, noting they contain an irritant derived from pepper plants. "I'm not saying it's not a tear gas, but I'm just saying we use a pepper ball that shoots a powder."

The original Park Police statement ignited a semantic battle over chemical agents amid a broader discussion over whether the use of force was necessary as protestors demonstrated in Lafayette Square following George Floyd's death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes pepper spray and pepper balls under the category of a "riot control agent," something it defines as "chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin." 

"The point is we admitted to using what we used," Delgado said. 

"I think the term 'tear gas' doesn't even matter anymore. It was a mistake on our part for using 'tear gas' because we just assumed people would think CS or CN," he said, using abbreviations for other forms of tear gas.

An updated statement on the Park Police website posted Wednesday still claims that "officers and other assisting law enforcement partners did not use tear gas or OC Skat Shells to close the area at Lafayette Park."

Reached for comment, the Park Police pointed The Hill to a new statement issued Friday, which reiterated its earlier claims.

"USPP officers and other assisting law enforcement partners did not use tear gas or OC Skat Shells to close the area at Lafayette Park on Monday, June 1," the agency said. 

Park Police did not respond to questions about Skat Shells that local CBS News reporters found at the scene.

There has been a growing demand from Democratic lawmakers for the Department of the Interior, which oversees Park Police, to explain the use of chemical force and defend the aggressive clearing of protesters before Washington, D.C.'s curfew for the night had begun.

The move came just minutes before President Trump walked through the area to visit a church that had been vandalized the night before.

"It is unacceptable to prioritize clearing the way for the photo opportunity for the president over allowing a peaceful, legal demonstration," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) wrote Thursday to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

A letter obtained by The Hill shows Bernhardt requested assistance from the D.C. National Guard to quell protests, specifically saying they would be armed with "appropriate chemical munitions."

In the May 31 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Bernhardt said "a significant number of law enforcement personnel will be needed to effectively secure and manage protests over the next few days," adding that it was critical for Park Police to "leverage the assistance of our partnering agencies."

-Rachel Frazin contributed reporting. Updated at 4:19 p.m.

Outbrain