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Federal agents in Portland, Ore., will stop wearing military camouflage, DHS says

Federal officers are seen in downtown Portland on Saturday, July 25, 2020, during the 59th consecutive night of protests.

DAVE KILLEN/THE OREGONIAN

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES  Published: August 5, 2020

WASHINGTON -- Agents assigned to protect federal buildings in Portland, Ore., during ongoing protests will stop wearing camouflage uniforms in response to criticism that the officers look too much like troops, a top official for the Department of Homeland Security told senators.

“We are moving rapidly to replace those uniforms for those personnel,” Acting Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Ken Cuccinelli told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

However, Cuccinelli said the agents will remain largely unidentified despite some lawmakers blasting the move, calling Homeland Security personnel a “secret police.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said during the hearing that President Donald Trump deployed "heavily armed secret police snatching Portlanders off the streets." He said Trump did so "to create images of chaos for his own political gain — to air in campaign ads."

Protests have roiled Portland since the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May. Demonstrations swelled after clashes between protesters and federal law enforcement. Protesters targeted the federal courthouse, vandalizing the area, throwing objects, and setting fires in the streets.

Police have been criticized for using aggressive tactics on protestors not engaging in violent or destructive acts, sometimes attacking journalists with tear gas and rubber bullets. Two weeks ago, an unarmed Navy veteran was beaten with a baton and doused with pepper spray.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown had demanded federal agents withdraw from Portland, calling them an “occupying force” who “refused accountability and brought violence.” She announced last week that some federal agents began leaving the city.

Cuccinelli said the lack of identification on uniforms protected officers and their families from being targeted and harassed. He also said the use of unmarked vehicles is a common law enforcement tactic to “avoid unnecessary, potential attacks by lawless criminals, such as the ones assaulting our officers in Portland on a nightly basis.”

“Violent extremists across the country have intentionally attacked marked police vehicles and attempted to set them on fire – including with officers inside – which creates significant danger for the public and our officers,” Cuccinelli said.

Officers using uniforms virtually identical to the Army has raised eyebrows at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said last month that he was worried federal agents could be confused with military personnel. 

“There are some law enforcement that wear uniforms that make them appear military in appearance. The secretary has expressed a concern of this within the administration that we want a system where people can tell the difference,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said last month. “I know [Esper] has expressed his concern that in some cases, law enforcement, appropriately performing law enforcement duties, were misconstrued with military personnel who would not be appropriately doing those roles.”

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