Investigation finds issues in DC Guard use of aircraft during June protests

Investigation finds issues in DC Guard use of aircraft during June protests
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The Washington, D.C., National Guard did not have clear guidance on orders to use two helicopters during protests in the city last June when one of the aircraft flew low to disperse a crowd, a military probe found.

“A number” of Army members received some type of administrative discipline as a result of the confusion, service officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

They would not provide additional details, but one Army official told the AP that the personnel were guilty of “performance shortcomings” and no one was found to have committed any misconduct.

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The report comes nearly a year after the June 1 incident, during which a D.C. National Guard helicopter flew less than 100 feet over crowds protesting the killing of George Floyd. Footage from that night showed an unarmed Lakota medivac craft with Red Cross markings using its rotor wash — or the downward rush of air from rotors — to disperse crowds near the Capitol One Arena.

Shortly after that night, lawmakers and other officials demanded to know why the Guard used one of its medivac helicopters in a "show of force" and asked whether proper approval was given.

An initial investigation by the D.C. National Guard found that the helicopters were not properly authorized to be there and had been ordered by a lieutenant colonel who was not on scene and instead driving home in his car, Defense One reported in October.

The lieutenant colonel’s superior officer, meanwhile, claimed he did not tell the lower-ranking officer that the helicopters should be used for crowd dispersal.

The Defense Department Inspector General was suspected of sitting on the review for months, however officials said they were doing “a thorough oversight review” of the Army investigation, with the watchdog multiple times requesting additional information from the Army.

The document’s long-awaited release this month concludes that it was appropriate to use the helicopters due to protests turning violent, which was categorized as an ongoing emergency situation.

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The helicopters were "not prohibited by Federal law or policy or Army regulation," but when they were deployed to downtown, however, "there was a systematic lack of understanding" among aircrews in terms of how they would be used, according to an Army release on the report.

Some crew believed they were meant to observe the crowd, while others thought they were there as part of a larger deterrence presence, according to the report.

Following completion of the final report, which was reviewed by the Army and the Defense Department's inspector general, service officials say there is a very strict process now needed to get approval for the use of aircraft for city events.

The document also recommends better planning, training and oversight of the Guard's use of aviation in civil disturbance operations, as well as a review of Army guidance.

The report comes in the middle of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who is accused of killing Floyd in May when he knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.