Army Investigation Finds 'Shortcomings' In Helicopter Use During June Protests The Army's investigation into reports of low-flying helicopters launched during the protests following George Floyd's murder in June 2020.
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Army Investigation Finds 'Shortcomings' In Helicopter Use During June Protests

A helicopter hovers over protesters in D.C. on June 1. Courtesy of Sam Ward/ hide caption

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Courtesy of Sam Ward/

An investigation by the U.S. Army faults the D.C. National Guard's use of helicopters during the city's June 2020 protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, finding that one helicopter hovered as low as 100 feet above protesters.

The report, released Wednesday, does not state that any National Guard aircrew members engaged in misconduct, but instead states that "there was a systemic lack of understanding" surrounding the deployment and command of helicopters during "civil disturbance operations," according to a statement from a U.S. Army spokesperson. The report sites several "organizational, resources, and oversight shortcomings" in the National Guard's aircraft response during the protests on the night of June 1, 2020, but ultimately concludes that the actions were justified.

"The decisions to use the helicopters in support of the civil disturbance operations were reasonable given the emergent nature of the situation," reads a U.S. Army statement emailed to DCist.

The investigation into the National Guard's practices launched last summer, in response to a helicopter that flew so low on the night of June 1 that it blew debris and branches towards demonstrators, and other reports that helicopters flew overhead marked as medical aircrafts.

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The Army's report confirms that one helicopter on the night of June 1 did descend below 100 feet near 5th and E Street NW, reportedly to "provide that constant obvious presence as hopefully a deterrent," to the crowds below, according to one interview included in the Army's report of the investigation, obtained by DCist. (The name of the interviewer is redacted.)

While many of the interviews included in the report note that the presence of aircrafts was ordered to oversee potential looting and control crowds, video of the low flying helicopter on June 1 show a crowd largely standing still.

The investigation also found that the medical helicopters were not deployed in accordance with proper protocols, but that the deployment didn't violate any federal laws or Army regulations. The Army report characterizes this as a mistake due to a "breakdown of command and control," and a "lack of proper training related to the use of air ambulance assets."

At the time of the protests, former Army officials called the use of the low-flying and medical helicopters a "foolish" move, intended to symbolize a show of force.

According to the Army's report, Brigadier General Robert Ryan of the D.C. National Guard testified during the investigation that federal defense officials, including the former Secretary of Defense Ryan McCarthy, instructed D.C. National Guard leadership to deploy a full military response on the night of June 1, but did not discuss air tactics.

"So the intent was very clear. It was...rather shocking," Ryan is quoted in the report. He further described the commands of the federal Army officials: "You will deploy the DC National Guard by all means necessary, armed, out in support of civil authority in the District of Columbia....we had to include massive presence and...so we executed."

Another individual involved in the aircraft deployment that was interviewed in the investigation understood the mission on June 1 to be "show of force."

"While the exact words are difficult to recall, I remember a clear sense of urgency to launch the aircraft quickly and a request for a 'show of force,' apparently from the highest levels of DC Guard and Army leadership," reads a quote from the individual in the report.

The Army's report includes a slew of recommended changes to the National Guard's procedures to avoid the future shortcomings, like an evaluation of the Army Aviation Support Facility to bring its operations and recording systems into compliance, and clearer markings for medical aircrafts.

"Effective support to civil authorities in these situations hinges on clear understanding of the mission, capability and command and control of all assets and personnel," said Acting Secretary of the Army John E. Whitley in a U.S. Army release. "The National Guard is uniquely qualified to assist civil authorities; I am proud of the support they provided this nation over the past year. We are refining our regulations to ensure their success in the future."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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