A federal officer in Portland, Oregon, on July 23 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/NATHAN HOWARD
A federal officer in Portland, Oregon, on July 23 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP/NATHAN HOWARD

US President Donald Trump’s plan to deploy federal law-enforcement officers in cities gripped by protests has so far been a thoroughgoing failure. That isn’t stopping the administration from doubling down.

Earlier in July, the US department of homeland security began sending officers to Portland, Oregon, to protect federal property from continuing demonstrations. Lacking training for this kind of assignment, and given only the vaguest instructions, the agents tear-gassed elderly women, severely injured several protesters, and detained others without charges or explanation.

In doing so, they’ve only fueled new anger and worsened the disorder.

Now Trump is threatening to send officers to at least half a dozen other cities “all run by very liberal Democrats” — a phrase that suggests the president is more interested in making a political point than in restoring order.

It’s true that the mayhem in Portland has gone on far too long. Local authorities need to enforce the law and ensure that demonstrations remain peaceful. But the president’s job is to support them in such an effort, not to barge in and compound the problem.

The mayor and governor have demanded that the officers leave, both the states’ senators have condemned the operation, the attorney-general has filed a lawsuit, and prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation. The president should withdraw these units before any more harm is done.

“I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors to do our job,” said acting secretary of homeland security Chad Wolf. “We're going to do that, whether they like us there or not.”

This was to miss the point. The federal government has a right to protect federal property, but acting so clumsily, and over the objections of local officials, is needlessly inflammatory. It looks like a threat to get in line with the president’s vision of crowd control or face an invasion of feds ready to crack skulls.

It’s also a distraction from what department should be doing. The agency has a vital role in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Its response so far has often been chaotic and incompetent. It failed for months to co-ordinate federal relief efforts or acquire adequate protective supplies. Asked in a hearing about how many respirators and face shields the country needed, Wolf could not even venture a guess.

More than 900 immigrant detainees in the department’s custody have contracted the coronavirus, while its own agents have complained about a lack of personal protective equipment.

That’s to say nothing of the department’s other pressing responsibilities, including dealing with large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers at the southern border; significant threats to election security; a spike in state-sponsored cyber-attacks; vulnerabilities in critical infrastructure; virus-related travel disruptions; and much else, even as it’s staffed with acting officials (or no-one at all) in a slew of key positions.

Members of the US Congress have questioned whether the department could even respond to a natural disaster in its current state.

With so many problems to attend to, the last thing the department — and the country — needs is for homeland security officers to be deployed in cities where their presence has proved unwanted and counterproductive.


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