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Unidentified Federal Police Prompt Fears Amid Protests in Washington

2020-06-05 00:45:27
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Historically, local police departments have required their officers to have some sort of identification on their uniforms, according to Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research organization. The Justice Department criticized the Police Department in Ferguson, Mo., six years ago for not forcing officers to display signs identifying their department. But lawyers have found that state and federal laws do little to require that law enforcement agencies identify themselves to the public.

Identification gets even more difficult at the federal level, said Carl Takei, a senior staff lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union who focuses on law enforcement.

Mr. Takei said the use of teams from the Bureau of Prisons particularly hindered efforts to identify officers and de-escalate encounters. Each of the agencies deployed relies on different internal policies and on varied sets of rules. The Bureau of Prisons may be especially out of its depth: Responding to a peaceful demonstration requires a different response than stopping a prison riot.

“To transport this prison S.W.A.T. team into a position where they’re in a position to manage a protest involving thousands of people, it’s just such a radically different context,” Mr. Takei said. “That issue is particularly dangerous, not being able to clearly identify them as being federal agents based on the way that they’re labeled. It’s deeply irresponsible on the part of the superior officer to not tell them to wear identifying insignia.”

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to requests for comment. Justice Department officials told reporters on Thursday that they were not aware of officers refusing to be identified. Asked about increasing the presence of tactical teams over the weekend, Alexei Woltornist, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency did not comment “on active or tentative operational status of its front-line workers for their protection.”

J. Peter Donald, a former assistant commissioner of the New York Police Department who also worked for the F.B.I., said it was crucial that law enforcement “use every opportunity” to build meaningful relationships with the public. “Certainly knowing who you’re talking to is an important piece of that,” he said.

State and local officials have also had mixed reactions to the deployments. Even as Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, approved the sending of National Guard troops to Washington on Wednesday, the city’s mayor, Muriel E. Bowser, said the federal presence was unwelcome. Ms. Bowser, who on Thursday said she had spoken to Ms. Pelosi about the federal agents and troops in Washington, said she wanted them removed from the city.

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