As the chief federal law enforcement official in Colorado, I have watched with keen interest what is happening in Portland, Oregon, regarding the use of federal law enforcement personnel. I have also followed closely the announcement this week by President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr that they will be sending law enforcement personnel into cities where violent crime has been skyrocketing.
Unfortunately, there has been a conflation of what is happening in Portland — protecting federal property — with the traditional crime-fighting initiatives the Department of Justice has engaged in for decades. The result has been widespread confusion about both. As Coloradans, we would be well-served to take a collective deep breath, tone down the rhetoric, and try to better understand both what has actually happened in Portland and what is actually being proposed elsewhere.
But first, let’s be clear about Colorado. As Colorado’s U.S. attorney, my job is to protect Coloradans by enforcing federal criminal law. I have spoken with our federal agency partners here, and we are all committed to ensuring that federal law enforcement activity in Colorado is conducted in a lawful manner, as it always has been. And while I am hopeful that the need for greater federal resources never arises, Colorado has my pledge that if such a need does arise, it will be done only in cooperation with the relevant state and local law enforcement agencies. As I often say, we have the gold standard of federal-state-local partnership here in Colorado. I intend to keep it that way.
Now, let’s talk about Portland. Over the past few weeks, lawful protests there have devolved into violent attacks on federal employees and the destruction of federal property. I have spoken with my counterpart there and he reports the widespread use of rocks, lasers, slingshots loaded with ball-bearings, explosives, and other methods to assault federal employees. There are also nightly attempts by rioters to storm federal buildings and destroy them. Unfortunately, the size and scale of the violence has so overwhelmed the men and women ordinarily tasked with protecting those employees and buildings that they have asked for help from Washington. In keeping with standard practice, personnel from other agencies came to assist.
In the last few days, there have been various allegations about the conduct of these agents, including charges that anonymous law enforcement officers are wandering the city, whisking away innocent citizens in unmarked vehicles to secret government locations for interrogation. Others allege instances of excessive use of force by officers staged around federal buildings.
While it is apparently true that those federal agents, like virtually all state and local police agencies, have used unmarked vehicles, the other claims are contradicted by the actual evidence on the ground. According to the head of the Customs and Border Patrol, all of their agents wear multiple insignia designating them as police or identifying their agency, and these agents have strict protocols limiting arrests to those engaging in direct violence against federal employees or federal property in and around the federal courthouse.
In fact, dozens of such arrests have been made. There is also no credible indication that federal agents have been more broadly wandering the streets of Portland looking for agitators or taking people anywhere other than back to the courthouse where all federal detainees are taken. And in the very small number of cases where agents have been accused of acting outside their authority, those incidents are being reviewed by the Inspector General for the respective agencies. Time and due process will tell if any laws or procedures were broken. If so, those responsible will be held accountable.
Those are the facts about Portland.
Next, there has been much discussion about the president’s and the attorney general’s announcement this week of Project LeGend, under which federal law enforcement resources and dollars will be targeted and deployed to those cities where violent crime (murders, armed robberies, bank robberies, etc.) has exploded in recent months. In Chicago, where 373 people have been murdered so far this year, the administration has pledged hundreds of agents from the FBI, ATF, DEA, and other agencies, as well as $9.3 million for the hiring of 75 local sheriff’s deputies. While the Chicago mayor originally opposed federal intervention, she now welcomes it after gaining a better understanding of the proposal.
In short, Project LeGend will help address the recent spike in violent crime occurring in many communities across our nation. That is very different than what is being done in Portland to protect federal employees and property. If done properly, both serve a valid purpose.
Nonetheless, many state and local officials in Colorado and elsewhere have incorrectly described the recent proposal as an effort to send in “paramilitary forces” (or even the military) to quash lawful demonstrations. Perhaps unintentionally, the media itself has exacerbated this misunderstanding: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Denver Post all ran headlines this week about the president’s proposal under a photograph of camouflaged and masked law enforcement personnel engaging demonstrators in Portland. Viewed together, this perpetuates the misperception about what is being proposed and heightens public anxiety.
Ultimately, bringing in law enforcement to areas that need support is a good thing, whether it be to defend public property or to help address the jump in violent crime across our nation. And as the U.S. attorney, you have my assurance that federal law enforcement in Colorado will continue to operate in accordance with the law, and will strive to work cooperatively with state and local authorities to make Colorado a safer and better place.
Jason Dunn currently serves as the United States attorney for the District of Colorado. He oversees the prosecution of all federal crimes and the litigation of all civil matters involving the United States government in Colorado.
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