(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

For racial justice protests in Portland, U.S. taps tactical border squads

It’s not just the Border Patrol Tactical Unit that has been called to duty in Portland

They are the most highly trained members of the Border Patrol, agents who confront drug traffickers along the U.S.-Mexico border and track down dangerous fugitives in rugged terrain.

One day this past week, they were in a far different setting — a city park in Portland, Oregon, looking for two people suspected of throwing rocks and bottles at officers guarding the downtown federal courthouse.

Beyond the debate over whether the federal response to the Portland protests encroaches on local authority, another question arises: whether the Department of Homeland Security, with its specialized national security focus, is the right agency for the job.

It’s not just the Border Patrol Tactical Unit that has been called to duty in Portland. DHS has dispatched air marshals as well as the Customs and Border Protection Special Response Team and even members of the Coast Guard.

“The Department of Homeland Security was never intended as a national police force let alone a presidential militia,” said Peter Vincent, a former general counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is also an agency within DHS.

The deployment of DHS agents and officers is legal, both under existing law and an executive order President Donald Trump signed June 26 to protect federal property and monuments. But it has made the agency, created to improve the nation’s response to terrorism, a target of widespread criticism.

Congress plans to delve into the issue Friday, when the House Homeland Security Committee holds a hearing on the federal response to the protests in Portland and Trump’s announcement that he plans to send federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to help combat rising crime while making “law and order” a central theme of his reelection campaign.

“Americans across the country are watching what the administration is doing in Portland with horror and revulsion and are wondering if their cities could be President Trump’s next targets,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is chairman of the committee.

As of Monday, there were 114 federal agents and officers deployed to downtown Portland, according to an affidavit from Gabriel Russell, the regional director of the Federal Protective Service, the DHS component that provides security for federal buildings.

Protests have been taking place in Portland since May 26 but the federal agents kept a “defensive posture” by staying inside federal buildings until July 3, Russell said in the affidavit, filed in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking protections for journalists and other legal observers covering the demonstrations.

That night, according to Russell, protesters attempted to set fire to the federal courthouse and DHS deployed a Rapid Deployment Force as part of “Operation Diligent Valor.”

That same night, Trump stood before Mount Rushmore and accused protesters around the country who have pushed for racial justice of engaging in a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.” He later criticized officials in Portland for allowing demonstrations to get “totally out of control.”

The officers deploying to Portland are “highly trained,” and many wear camouflage because that’s their duty uniform on the southwest border, according to acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, responding to charges of a militarized response to the protests.

In addition to their previous training, they took a 90-minute online course on the mission and jurisdiction of the Federal Protective Service, police powers and criminal regulations, according to a course description provided to The Associated Press.

Richard Cline, principal deputy director of the protective services, told reporters that DHS officers are given additional training to ensure they act within guidelines established by the Justice Department as they assist an organization that was “quickly overwhelmed” by violent demonstrators.

Wolf also defended tactics such as tear gas, rubber bullets and having officers sweep people off the street into unmarked vehicles, evoking images of a secret police force.

“We are only targeting and arresting those who have been identified as committing criminal acts, like any other law enforcement agency does across the country every single day of the week,” he said.

On Wednesday, agents from the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, known as BORTAC, set out from the federal courthouse just after midnight in pursuit of two people in dark clothing and carrying makeshift shields suspected of throwing rocks and bottles at officers, according to court records.

The agents struggled with the two, eventually restraining them and turning them over to the Federal Protective Service. One, a 19-year-old man, was charged with felony assault of an officer.

In addition to rocks and bottles, agents and officers at the courthouse have been struck with ball bearings, improvised explosives, fireworks, and balloons filled with paint and feces, Russell said. Some have also had lasers shined at their eyes.

At least 28 officers have been injured and officers have made at least 43 arrests, mostly for misdemeanours.

While the use of BORTAC officers in this environment is unusual, it’s not unprecedented, said Michael Fisher, a former senior official with the agency and member of the unit.

BORTAC officers have been used to serve warrants on suspects considered dangerous, protected emergency personnel during natural disasters and were sent to Los Angeles during the 1992 riots, Fisher said.

“What was happening in Portland is the police were not enforcing … the laws and it just escalated and that’s the reason it’s gone on well over 50 days now,” said Fisher, who now runs a security company.

Local officials have in turn accused DHS of inflaming the situation, an argument bolstered by the fact that protests grew larger as controversy intensified over the tactics of the federal agents.

Former DHS officials concede the agency has worked with state and local law enforcement before, with the consent and co-operation of local authorities. But in Oregon, officials have accused the federal government of inflaming the situation and asked it to withdraw.

Vincent, who left ICE in 2014 and now works as a consultant, said some current officials are “extraordinarily uncomfortable” with what they have been asked to do in Portland.

“I am deeply concerned as someone who believes in the mission of the agency and knows and respects its officers and agents that these activities will irreparably damage the agency’s reputation,” he said.

Ben Fox, The Associated Press

Just Posted

Vaccinations taking place. File photo
Interior Health officials urge COVID-19 vaccine registration as eligibility opens up

Over 365,000 vaccine doeses have been administered throughout the Interior Health region

New Border Bruins owner Dr. Mark Szynkaruk reps team colours with his young sons and wife Tracey. Photo courtesy of the Grand Forks Border Bruins
KIJHL’s Border Bruins sold to Grand Forks doctor

The league announced the sale Friday, May 14

Young Federico “Fred” Lenzi. (Raymond Lenzi/Contributed)
Italian moved to Okanagan with hope; he ended up being sent to a WWII internment camp

Raymond Lenzi shares his grandfather’s story ahead of Canada’s planned formal apology to Italian-Canadians

Vikki and Don Holmberg with their three children Marshall, Ava and oldest Lexi who now lives on her own. The Penticton family is facing the prospect of homelessness after their rental home was sold, leading them to ask the community for help. (Contributed)
‘There’s just nothing’: housing crunch puts Penticton family on the brink of homelessness

Housing crisis something many in the city can likely relate to, says mother of three

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking on a remote forest road in Naramata on May 10. (Submitted)
Kamloops brothers identified as pair found dead near Penticton

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking

Daily confirmed COVID-19 cases reported to B.C. public health, seven-day rolling average in white, to May 12, 2021. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. preparing ‘Restart 2.0’ from COVID-19 as June approaches

Daily infections fall below 500 Friday, down to 387 in hospital

Bradley Priestap in an undated photo provided to the media some time in 2012 by the London Police Service.
Serial sex-offender acquitted of duct tape possession in B.C. provincial court

Ontario sex offender on long-term supervision order was found with one of many ‘rape kit’ items

Rich Coleman, who was responsible for the gaming file off and on from 2001 to 2013, was recalled after his initial testimony to the Cullen Commission last month. (Screenshot)
Coleman questioned over $460K transaction at River Rock during B.C. casinos inquiry

The longtime former Langley MLA was asked about 2011 interview on BC Almanac program

Enderby’s Small Axe Roadhouse was the subject of nasty backlash after installing two busty beer towers. (Facebook)
Enderby bar’s busty beer taps to stay put despite backlash

‘Many folks have mansplained to us that we are sexist, misogynistic…’

Steven Shearer, <em>Untitled. </em>(Dennis Ha/Courtesy of Steven Shearer)
Vancouver photographer’s billboards taken down after complaints about being ‘disturbing’

‘Context is everything’ when it comes to understanding these images, says visual art professor Catherine Heard

Trina Hunt's remains were found in the Hope area on March 29. Her family is asking the public to think back to the weekend prior to when she went missing. (Photo courtesy of IHIT.)
Cousin of missing woman found in Hope says she won’t have closure until death is solved

Trina Hunt’s family urges Hope residents to check dashcam, photos to help find her killer

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Restrictions will lift once 75% of Canadians get 1 shot and 20% are fully immunized, feds say

Federal health officials are laying out their vision of what life could look like after most Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19

Police are at Ecole Mount Prevost Elementary but the students have been evacuated. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Gardener finds buried explosives, sparking evacuation of Cowichan school

Students removed from school in an ‘abundance of caution’

Vernon resident David Melanson, 21, left the South Hills Tertiary Psychiatric Centre in Brocklehurst at about 1 a.m. on May 12, the day he was reported missing. (Contributed)
Body of missing Vernon man found in Kamloops Lake

David Melanson, 21, left psychiatric centre around 1 a.m. the day he was reported missing

Most Read