DC officials push back on aggressive federal response to protests

DC officials push back on aggressive federal response to protests
Law enforcement officers from Calvert County Maryland Sheriff's Office standing on the Ellipse, area just south of the White House in Washington, as they watch demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers (Source: AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Officials in the nation’s capital pushed back Tuesday on an aggressive response by the federal government to demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, with the mayor flatly rejecting a Trump administration proposal for the federal government to take over its police force and one county in Virginia pulling its officers from Washington.

The federal government has deployed law enforcement officials from numerous agencies, and National Guard troops from a number of states have been sent to the District of Columbia. Attorney General William Barr, who is directing the federal law enforcement response in the city, promised by Tuesday "even greater law enforcement resources and support in the region."

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said the Trump administration floated the idea of taking over the Metropolitan Police Department, a proposal she strongly rejected. She threatened to take legal action if the federal government attempted to do so.

But there were signs that the federal response would be even more aggressive Tuesday night, as Washington prepared for a fifth night of protests.

Hours before a 7 p.m. curfew for the second night in a row, cars were being stopped at military checkpoints in downtown Washington and a cavalry of armored military vehicles could be seen driving through the district. Businesses were boarding up windows with plywood in anticipation of another night of violence after fires were set, windows were shattered, store shelves were emptied and dozens of police officers were injured in days of protests.

Two Defense Department officials said the Trump administration had ordered military aircraft to fly above Washington on Monday night as a "show of force" against demonstrators protesting the death of Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis policeman pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after Floyd stopped moving and pleading for air. Police made over 300 arrests, mainly for violating the district's curfew.

Earlier Monday evening, law enforcement officers on foot and horseback moved aggressively to clear protesters away from Lafayette Park near the White House in advance of President Donald Trump's walk to a nearby church for a photo opportunity.

After participating in the show of force, Arlington County in Virginia pulled out its officers, saying they were used "for a purpose not worthy of our mutual aid obligations."

County Board Chair Libby Garvey said on Twitter she's "appalled" that the mutual aid agreement was abused "for a photo op." In a phone interview, Garvey said the aid request came from U.S. Park Police, and that the agencies have aided each other routinely over the years. She said Arlington Police had helped in Washington on Saturday and Sunday without incident.

Arlington County officials said in a statement their officers never wielded their batons and did not fire rubber bullets or tear gas. But after watching the scene unfold on live television, the police chief ordered all the officers to return to Virginia.

"This unprecedented decision by the County was a necessary response to an unprecedented situation," the statement said.

Officials said they were reevaluating the mutual aid agreements to ensure officers "are never again put in a situation where they are asked to take action that is inconsistent with our values."

The U.S. Park Police on Tuesday defended its actions at the park, saying it issued three warnings over a loudspeaker before clearing the area of protesters, some of whom they said were becoming violent, throwing projectiles and trying to grab weapons. It said it used smoke canisters and pepper balls to disperse the crowd.

Barr ordered law enforcement officials to clear the park and push back the perimeter around the White House when he arrived there Monday evening, ahead of the president's remarks, leading to police using force to disperse protesters, a person familiar with the matter told the AP.

Officials had met Monday morning and decided the perimeter had to be moved by at least one full block, which was expected to happen by Monday afternoon, after multiple fires were set in the park the night before, the person said. When Barr arrived, he was surprised it hadn't been done and directed action to be taken, according to the person, who could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.

Monday, in a call with governors, Trump and Barr had encouraged more aggressive action against those who cause violence during protests across the country.

The call raised questions about whether using more aggressive law enforcement measures against demonstrators protesting police brutality would only increase tensions.

Trump said he was "taking immediate presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America."

The president urged governors to deploy the National Guard, which he credited with helping calm the situation Sunday night in Minneapolis, and demanded that similarly tough measures be taken in cities that also experienced spasms of violence, including New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

"Mayors and governors must establish an overwhelming law enforcement presence until the violence has been quelled," Trump said.

Between the protests and the response to the coronavirus pandemic, the National Guard has been deployed at its highest level in recent history, surpassing the number of troops sent to the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More than 66,700 soldiers and airman have been activated — 45,000 to assist with the pandemic and more than 17,000 to help with the protests.

The federal government has provided all affected states with a list of National Guard resources available to them, a White House official said. The official added that Trump's message to governors was if they don't utilize all of the tools in their arsenal they shouldn't expect a sympathetic response from Washington if they request federal dollars to help with clean-up and recovery down the line. The official could not discuss the matter publicly and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.

Other law enforcement resources are also being mobilized in Washington.

The Justice Department had deployed agents from every one of its agencies, including the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, an elite tactical unit, and riot teams from the Bureau of Prisons.

The U.S. Park Police and Secret Service have had dozens of officers out in riot gear in Washington for the last few nights, in addition to the Metropolitan Police Department. U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other Homeland Security agencies were also dispatched.

Most of the protesters have been peaceful and tried to discourage violence. Trump, Barr and others have tried to blame some of the civil unrest on left-wing extremist groups, including antifa, and other "anarchists." Short for anti-fascists, antifa is an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations.

The Justice Department has vowed to treat the "violence instigated and carried out by antifa & other similar groups" as domestic terrorism. Although there isn't a specific federal domestic terrorism statute, prosecutors could charge other offenses and seek enhanced sentencing.

The U.S. military and National Guard are operating in Washington under the official mission name Operation Themis, according to two Pentagon officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so publicly. In Greek mythology, Themis was a titaness of divine law and order, whose symbols are the scales of justice.

Army Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesperson, said they were not aware of the operational name but said it's possible.

The Associated Press reviewed a Defense Department document that showed the DC response is under the banner of Operation Themis. The document was marked unclassified.

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Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Lolita C. Baldor and Ashraf Khalil in Washington; James LaPorta in Delray Beach, Fla.; and Sarah Blake Morgan in West Jefferson, N.C., contributed to this report.

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