Federal Officers Use Unmarked Vehicles To Grab People In Portland, DHS Confirms Agents are deployed in the Oregon city amid anti-police protests. Homeland Security official Ken Cuccinelli tells NPR the tactic is being used to move detainees to a "safe location for questioning."

Federal Officers Use Unmarked Vehicles To Grab People In Portland, DHS Confirms

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Since early July, federal law enforcement officers have been deployed in Portland, Ore. President Trump sent them there after the city had seen weeks of protests for racial justice. Now the Department of Homeland Security confirms they are arresting protesters using unmarked vehicles. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Conrad Wilson reports.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Take a knee. Take a knee. Take a knee.

CONRAD WILSON, BYLINE: Since police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, nonviolent protesters in Portland have turned out nightly.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: I just want to talk to somebody.

WILSON: But in recent days, the focus has turned to the role federal law enforcement officers are playing in policing the city's streets. In videos posted online, federal law enforcement officers wearing camouflage can be seen jumping out of minivans and grabbing protesters. Around 2:30 a.m. on July 15, Mark Pettibone says federal officers detained him with no explanation.

MARK PETTIBONE: A van pulls up right in front of us, and I am basically tossed into the van. And I had my beanie pulled over my face so I couldn't see, and they held my hands over my head.

WILSON: Pettibone says he was taken to the federal courthouse, where federal officers searched and photographed him but gave no reason for his arrest.

PETTIBONE: They patted me down and took my picture and rummaged through my belongings. One of them said, this is a whole lot of nothing. You know, he was - seemed disappointed that I didn't have (laughter) any weapons or anything on me.

WILSON: Pettibone says he was placed in a cell by himself and read his Miranda rights. He says officers asked if he wanted to waive his rights. He said no and asked for a lawyer. He was released about an hour and a half later.

PETTIBONE: It was, you know, clear to me that this was just a totally indiscriminate detainment.

WILSON: In a statement, the U.S. Marshals Service declined to comment on the practice of using unmarked vehicles and said they did not arrest Pettibone. Since arriving just before the Fourth of July, officers from Customs and Border Protection's elite BORTAC unit and the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group have guarded Portland's federal courthouse. They've also assisted the Portland police in clearing protesters from city streets. And court documents filed this week revealed federal agents have embedded undercover officers with demonstrators to make at least one arrest.

JUAN CHAVEZ: It's like stop and frisk meets Guantanamo Bay.

WILSON: Juan Chavez is a lawyer with the Oregon Justice Resource Center and has represented the interests of protesters in court.

CHAVEZ: You have laws regarding probable cause that could lead to arrest, but it sounds more like abduction. It sounds like they're kidnapping people off the streets.

WILSON: The federal courthouse and county justice center in downtown Portland have been the focus of many protests. Windows are shattered. Parts of the building are boarded up and covered in graffiti. Yesterday, Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf visited Portland, calling it a city under siege. But local and state officials say that's far from the truth and want federal officers to leave. Oregon Governor Kate Brown says she spoke with Wolf.


KATE BROWN: I said, please, take your officers home. They're only escalating things here in the city, and you need to go home.

WILSON: But federal officials in Portland say they're seeing criminal activity that must be stopped.

BILLY WILLIAMS: Portland's well known for Rose City Antifa, right? They've been around a long time.

WILSON: Billy Williams is the U.S. attorney for the district of Oregon.

WILLIAMS: I believe they're a part of this. I believe there are just individuals who are anarchists.

WILSON: Meanwhile, President Trump is lauding officers currently deployed here.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We've done a great job in Portland. Portland was totally out of control, and they went in, and I guess we have many people right now in jail. And we very much quelled it, and if it starts again, we'll quell it again very easily. It's not hard to do.

WILSON: Next week, Trump says he plans to announce a larger role for federal law enforcement in cities across the country.

For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson in Portland.


This piece was co-reported with Oregon Public Broadcasting's Jonathan Levinson. The U.S. attorney in Oregon has asked the DHS inspector general to open an investigation into these reports.

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