Let's stop the nonsense about federal agents in Portland

There have been conflicting reports about federal agents in camouflage and unmarked vehicles detaining protesters in Portland, Ore., without cause. This comes on the heels of scenes of federal officers, outfitted in blue shirts and tactical vests but no official patches or badges, protecting facilities in Washington, D.C., in June. The events have called into question the role of federal law enforcement and how it intersects with traditional policing. 

While many federal law enforcement agencies are investigative in nature and have special agents, not police officers, some do have a more traditional police role. The Secret Service Uniformed Division has been in operation since 1922 and provides traditional law enforcement services around the White House and foreign embassies in the U.S. Its agents conduct operations around the president and other dignitaries, including K-9, explosive ordnance disposal, and counter-assault teams. The Capitol Police is approximately 1,500 police officers strong and functions much like a traditional police department. Many other agencies have uniformed police officers as well, including the FBI, whose police officers protect the agency’s headquarters, FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and its enormous field offices in Washington and New York. 

For all the controversy that surrounds J. Edgar Hoover today, the longtime FBI director, who died nearly a half-century ago, strongly opposed the notion of establishing a national police force. It was a primary motive for Hoover’s setting up the FBI National Academy (FBINA) in 1935. Not to be confused with the academy that trains new FBI special agents, the FBINA created the first executive training for police supervisors, some of whom were the only members of their departments to receive any formal training long ago. Today, the FBINA remains the gold standard for senior police officers who lead departments across the country and the world. 


But recent videos of federal agents in Portland detaining suspects has sparked debate, and critics of President TrumpDonald TrumpFreedom Caucus member condemns GOP group pushing 'Anglo-Saxon political traditions' MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell's new free speech site to ban certain curse words Secret Facebook groups of special operations officers include racist comments, QAnon posts: report MORE and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrGarland rescinds Trump-era memo curtailing consent decrees Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Dominion: Ex-Michigan state senator 'sowing discord in our democracy' with election fraud claims MORE are making analogies to secret military operations and private armies. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said “they are snatching people off the street with no underlying justification.” House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden angers Democrats by keeping Trump-era refugee cap Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire Biden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000 MORE (D-Calif.) referred to federal agents in Portland as “Stormtroopers” in a tweet. Said Juan Chavez, director of the civil rights project at the Oregon Justice Resource Center: “It’s like stop and frisk meets Guantanamo Bay.” This is nonsense.   

The federal building and courthouse in Portland have been under assault by demonstrators for more than two weeks. In addition to the “mere graffiti” that opponents of the federal response have pointed to, there has been substantial damage to windows and doors; protesters have attempted to set fire to the facility; and federal agents attempting to stop the violence have been assaulted while the protestors blind them with laser lights. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has sided with the protesters and told Portland police to back down. Last week he told the acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfIntel heads to resume worldwide threats hearing scrapped under Trump Sunday shows preview: Democrats eye passage of infrastructure bill; health experts warn of fourth coronavirus wave Russia suspected of massive State Department email hack: report MORE to send the federal agents away

While all Americans cherish the right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances, what’s happening in Oregon is not that. Most jurisdictions, Portland included, require protesters to apply for a permit and comply with laws and regulations relating to protest activity. But in recent weeks, police response in cities such as Seattle, Portland and New York has been to allow protesters to flagrantly break the law without recourse. A protester who assaulted the New York Police Department chief of department during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge on Thursday leaving him bloodied, was released without bail

The federal government is sovereign to the states and does not need a governor’s or mayor’s permission to enforce federal law. If local police will not protect federal property, the federal government can. Contrary to some media reports, the federal agents making arrests in Portland can be seen wearing identifying patches on their uniforms, with “police” emblazoned on their vests, and Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan has confirmed they are Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. The agents have appeared in rented, unmarked vans because they are on temporary duty assignments in Portland; it’s not an effort to keep their identities secret. 

Critics have pointed to arrests made by these agents away from the federal courthouse as evidence they are rounding up “innocent protesters.” Federal agents are not precluded from making probable-cause arrests, or arrests based on warrants, away from federal property. Since many of these federal teams have been in place for weeks, it is likely they have arrest packages on individuals accused of previously committing crimes who are now being identified through investigations. In several videos, agents can be seen bypassing individuals to arrest persons of apparent interest; these appear to be targeted operations, not the roundup of innocents. 

All of law enforcement is accountable to the citizens by way of their elected officials. If the people of Portland, Seattle and New York are fine with having anarchy in their streets, they can continue to vote for politicians who handcuff the police and back them down. If the rest of the country wants federal law enforcement to look like that, too, they can vote that way in November. In the meantime, however, the hyperbolic references comparing U.S. federal agents to Guantanamo Bay, Stormtroopers and Nazis should stop.  

James M. Casey was a police officer and FBI agent for 32 years. In 2004-2005 he was assigned to the National Security Council as a Director of Intelligence, and he retired in 2012 as Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Jacksonville Division. He is president of FCS Global Advisors, a private investigative and crisis management firm.