Editor’s Note: Benjamin Haas is advocacy counsel at Human Rights First, a non-profit, nonpartisan international human rights organization that challenges America to live up to its ideals. He served as an intelligence officer in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan twice. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinions at CNN.
The Trump administration’s militarized response to the protests in Portland and its rhetoric of war – along with the President’s threats to deploy federal law enforcement to other major cities – pose a serious threat to both the American people and our democracy.
Jarring videos show law enforcement officers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plucking protesters from the streets of Portland and stuffing them in unmarked vehicles before driving away. The agents, clad in the same camouflage pattern that I wore as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan, are not readily identifiable either by name or by agency. US Customs and Border Protection – an agency under the DHS – admitted to being involved in arresting protesters and issued a statement to CNN that read, “Violent anarchists have organized events in Portland over the last several weeks with willful intent to damage and destroy federal property, as well as, injure federal officers and agents. These criminal actions will not be tolerated.”
Last week, the US Attorney for the District of Oregon requested an investigation into the federal response, and the Inspectors General of both the DHS and the Justice Department have launched investigations into allegations the federal law enforcement personnel acted improperly.
But Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of DHS, has called the protesters “violent extremists” and repeatedly cast them as dangerous criminals while the President retweeted a post likening the protesters to a “domestic terrorist paramilitary group.” Meanwhile, teams of tactical border officers similar to the ones deployed in Portland have been sent to Seattle.
Blurring the line between the military and law enforcement is a risky proposition, with Portland offering a striking glimpse of the results. The DHS officers in Portland are more reminiscent of the special operators and the 10th Mountain Division infantry soldiers I supported in Afghanistan than the police officers I expect to see serving and protecting American communities.
Except there is no war in the United States, and law enforcement organizations should not be trained and equipped to act as if they are in one. Yet the Trump administration would have us believe that protesters are enemies who must be defeated in combat. And against this backdrop, the federal agents acting at the behest of the Trump administration have behaved in ways that are unacceptable even in armed conflict – apprehending apparently peaceful protesters and beating others who posed no meaningful threat. Unsurprisingly, the militarized federal response and the heavy-handed tactics have escalated the state of affairs in Portland, and Mayor Ted Wheeler was tear gassed on Thursday when he joined crowds of protesters.
As if plain observations from Portland weren’t convincing enough, studies suggest that militarized law enforcement is unhelpful for police and bad for community safety. One study in 2018, for example, found that “militarized policing fails to enhance officer safety or reduce local crime” and “may diminish police reputation in the mass public.” Another study found a “positive and statistically significant relationship” between a Defense Department program that funnels surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies and “fatalities from officer-involved shootings.”
The Trump administration’s highly militarized law enforcement approach also presents potential perils for the military. Public trust in the military is high, but confusion about its role or a false perception that it is involved in these federal protest responses could damage its relationship with society. This may be, in part, why, during a recent Capitol Hill hearing about the military’s involvement in protest responses in June, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley noted the importance of maintaining a “visual distinction” between “that which is military, and that which is police.”
With all of these drawbacks, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the US has long cherished maintaining a separation between the military and law enforcement. There are limited exceptions, including the Insurrection Act, which Trump suggested he would use to deploy active-duty military personnel in response to protests in June.
After meeting stiff public opposition from retired military leaders and his own Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, Trump backed away from this threat. But now, by deploying federal paramilitary law enforcement elements, the President has found a way to nonetheless achieve the same effect: using the military’s image to intimidate and crack down on protesters.
It appears Trump is trying to avoid the swift pushback he provoked from former high-ranking military officials when he considered wielding active-duty military troops in June. And in doing so, he’s trashing the spirit of the American principle that separates the military from law enforcement. This is more like the conduct of foreign authoritarians, not US presidents.
Portland has made clear the damaging effects of militarized law enforcement. Trump may feel tough by deploying soldier-like federal law enforcement officers to terrorize Portland. But as usual, he seems motivated by his own desire to present himself as a strongman and please his political base. His actions do not serve the best interests of our democracy, the American people, good policing or the military. Unfortunately, it appears that other cities across the country will only become additional cases in point.
This article has been modified to clarify that federal agents including some outside the Department of Homeland Security apprehended apparently peaceful protesters and beat others who posed no meaningful threat.