Rows of armed agents were deployed around the protests in Washington, D.C. this past week, but it was not obvious who they were: They had no name tags, no badge numbers and no emblems to identify which agencies they worked for.
Their arrival sparked shock and alarm. Now, Democratic lawmakers are calling for legislation that would make it illegal for these officers to not identify themselves.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) are cosponsoring a bill that would require officers to identify themselves while "engaged in crowd control or arresting individuals involved in civil disobedience or protests in the United States."
In the House, Virginia Democrat Don Beyer, whose district is just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is working on similar legislation.
"How do we tell these alleged federal police officers from white supremacist militia groups?" Beyer said in an interview Sunday with NPR's Weekend Edition. "How do you ever hold people accountable if you don't know what their name is?"
The federal response to protests in Washington — directed in part by Attorney General William Barr -- included the deployment of officers from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Some were stationed on the streets without identifying uniforms.
On Thursday, the Bureau of Prisons confirmed to the Dallas Morning News that it had dispatched tactical teams in response to the protests, but said in a statement, "Some federal agencies have additional information on their gear but others do not. It is common for federal law enforcement agents to identify themselves to citizens simply as federal law enforcement."
But politicians and activists argue that a lack of identification makes it difficult to hold law enforcement accountable — a central aim of the mass demonstrations that have spread across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.
"You hate to think that we're becoming a police society, but the show of force in Washington [D.C.] the past few days has made it very uncomfortable," Beyer said.
Because many of these officers were equipped with guns, batons, shields, helmets and tactical vests, Beyer said he was worried it would be difficult for even facial recognition to identify the officers.
"I don't think it's very hard to put a name tag on when we do it at every political event I've ever been to," Beyer said. "And one of the issues our legislation is going to address [is] what agency they represent, because your name can say Grant or Smith, and with dozens and dozens of federal law enforcement agencies, you'd have no way to track that person down."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
In the nation's capital, law enforcement has maintained an expanded perimeter around the White House. Last week, it included a line of agents, mostly men in dark outfits, standing shoulder to shoulder. To many people there to protest police brutality and to the reporters, residents and even lawmakers walking around the executive mansion, it wasn't clear who some of the security personnel were and what agencies they worked for. They were equipped with guns, batons, shields, helmets, tactical vests, but had no name plates or insignia.
Democratic Congressman Don Beyer represents Virginia's 8th District just across the river from D.C. He's now working on legislation to require federal officers in uniform at demonstrations and other First Amendment assemblies to have their names and agencies clearly marked. And he joins me now.
DON BEYER: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how'd you hear about this?
BEYER: Well, my constituents called right away, saying, who are these people? And people were really concerned. My middle daughter and her fiance were there again and again. And they would call and say, first, that they saw people with black tape over their badges, which is problematic, but then also that - the whole notion is, how do we tell these alleged federal police officers from white supremacist militia groups or after - when the whole issue is police impunity - that they can do whatever they want, especially to black Americans. How do you ever hold people accountable if you don't know what their name is?
And when you add all those things that they had - the helmets and the sunglasses and the visors - there's just no way even to get a facial identification if somebody was to, you know, say, pull somebody out of the crowd and beat them.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The police dispatched last week by the Justice Department came from an array of federal agencies. They included the FBI, ATF, DHS and the Bureau of Prisons. And officials from the Bureau of Prisons have acknowledged that they sent tactical teams without identifying uniforms because, quote, "they are serving a broader mission." And Justice Department officials have pointed out that this mobilization happened very quickly, and they had to use gear that was available. What is your reaction to that?
BEYER: I don't think it's very hard to put a name tag on when we do it at every political event I've ever been to. And you know, one of the issues - our legislation is also going to address what agency they represent because your name could say Grant or Smith. And with, oh, dozens and dozens of different federal law enforcement agencies, you'd have no way to track that person down.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So have you heard from your Republican colleagues about all this? Have they expressed similar concerns?
BEYER: I have not only because, you know, we're scattered because of the COVID crisis. But I am, A, optimistic that I think the bill we're putting together on trying to reign in police brutality and maximize police accountability - this will be included in it. But I also am really hopeful that many of our Republican friends will co-sponsor it because I don't think anybody wants to stand up for, you know, this dystopian secrecy in our society.
The problem with, like, Chauvin and George Floyd was he stood on his neck for more than eight minutes, seemingly unconcerned that - 'cause there would be no consequences. We've got to make sure that, you know, we don't have a secret police and that there are consequences. And you're going to have to have a name tag in order to do that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit more about the hodgepodge of federal agents that were called on to police the area around the White House. All of these agencies train differently, right? The Bureau of Prisons trains specifically for riot control of prisoners, not for civilian law enforcement. Do your concerns go beyond them not being properly identified?
BEYER: Oh, very much so. And it's the identification of where they come from, but also this explosion of federal officers. We've added 2,500 per year since 9/11. It seems like every different even sub-agency has its own police force. It's parallel to the militarization of the domestic police that we have done. You know, we - you hate to think that we're becoming a police society, but the show of force in Washington in the last couple days has made this very uncomfortable.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just briefly - we have about 30 seconds left - speaking of legislation, you have called for government assistance to continue as the country opens up again, and you're warning of a double-dip recession. Where does that stand?
BEYER: Well, you know, we are pleased that this temporarily laid off - a lot got hired back in May. But we added another half million or million that are permanently unemployed. As the Congressional Budget Office still says we're going to be at better than 9.5% unemployment all through 2021, we have to make sure there's unemployment insurance for those folks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Democratic Congressman Don Beyer, who represents Virginia's 8th District.
Thank you so much for joining us this morning.
BEYER: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.