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Customs And Border Protection Officers Criticized For Being In Portland


The federal government is defending its use of Customs and Border Protection officers in Portland, arguing that they are protecting federal buildings during late-night protests. But many have come to see them as an unaccountable and even illegal federal police force. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Portland has had protests every day for almost two months, most of it peaceful, but sometimes late at night, there's been violence, broken windows, thrown objects, fires. So around July 4, Homeland Security decided to beef up the forces that protect Portland's federal courthouse downtown. And that has made for some unsettling scenes.


KASTE: Officers in desert camo using smoke bombs to push back protesters. It looked like a military crackdown. And then there's the now-infamous video of a few of them grabbing a protester and putting him in an unmarked minivan.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What is going on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We need to know...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Who are you? What's your name? Tell us your name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What's your name?

KASTE: Local and state officials are not happy about this. And Oregon's attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, is suing the federal government on First Amendment grounds.

ELLEN ROSENBLUM: We believe that the actions, the conduct and the tactics that are being used by the federal agents here in Portland are serving as essentially a restraint on the ability and the rights of our people to peaceably protest.

KASTE: She wants the feds to pull their officers back from the streets and focus on protecting federal property. But yesterday in a defiant news conference in Washington, federal officials said that's what they've been doing.


MARK MORGAN: We're not patrolling the streets of Portland has been falsely reported multiple times in the past few days.

KASTE: Mark Morgan is the acting commissioner of CBP. Although some in Portland say they've seen his officers helping local police clear the streets, he says they're there to protect federal property. Though he says that doesn't necessarily mean they can't leave the premises.


MORGAN: We're not going to allow somebody to walk up to the federal property, assault a federal officer or agent and because then they walk off federal property, then we're going to say, oh, we can't go arrest you. Of course, we're going to arrest you, and we have the authority to make that arrest.

KASTE: The law allows officers to go off federal property to investigate a federal crime. For instance, that guy who was pulled into the minivan, they say he'd been spotted near people who'd been shining a dangerously bright laser into officers' eyes, so they followed him, detained him and questioned him. Morgan also insists that officers are not anonymous. He says they're not wearing nametags for fear of being doxxed, having their private information posted online. But they do wear agency patches along with a letter code that IDs them to their bosses. And what about that unmarked minivan? Morgan calls that a safety precaution.


MORGAN: We've seen it time and time again. We've seen marked patrol vehicles in the last few weeks among a variety of cities in this country on fire.

KASTE: Still, it's taken weeks for the feds just to explain what they're up to in Portland. And Steve Vladeck of the University of Texas Law School says all this mystery has created a sense of unease.

STEPHEN VLADECK: The real alarm bells here all come from these unmarked, unidentified federal officers enforcing some law, but we're not clear what; again, some individuals, but we're not clear who. And I think part of the problem there is that it makes it really hard to actually get to the bottom of things and hold officers accountable.

KASTE: And there's also just the way this has happened with this angry faceoff between the feds and local authorities.

VLADECK: I think we are seeing a real transcendence of some norms.

KASTE: Important norms, he says, such as the federal government's traditional deference to local authorities when it comes to who's in charge of basic policing. As to the legalities, later today, a federal judge will consider the state's request for a temporary restraining order against the federal officers in Portland, and more lawsuits against the federal government have been filed. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEP MAPS' "BIOLOGIC TRUST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.