Customs and Border Protection has authorized its personnel to use less-lethal force, such as riot guns firing pepper spray balls, against protesters who fire lasers — an increasingly prominent tactic for rioters in Portland, Oregon.
Lethal force is not justified, CBP said in the memo issued last week, but less-lethal means such as pepper spray or beanbag shotguns are allowed because lasers aimed at eyes or through camera lenses are “remarkably dangerous because of their concentrated energy.”
“Officers/agents are authorized by law to use objectively reasonable force to effect the arrest and protect against harm to the officer/agent or others,” wrote Charles A. Bishop, who oversees the agency’s law enforcement compliance directorate. “Officers/agents should consider all reasonable tools, tactics and equipment to cease an assault with a handheld laser in accordance with CBP Use of Force Policy and U.S. constitutional standards.”
The White House said three federal agents deployed to Portland may have been permanently blinded by laser attacks last week, as part of what is now eight weeks of clashes between police and demonstrators.
The federal Hatfield Courthouse in Portland’s downtown area has been the focal point, with nightly exchanges between rioters and federal police and agents.
According to court documents and law enforcement officials, demonstrators trying to break into the courthouse and trash it or light fires have targeted federal officials with high-intensity lasers, paint-filled balloons, slingshots loaded with ball bearings and mortar-fired fireworks.
President Trump has deployed more federal forces, including CBP, to protect the courthouse and to restore calm. He has said he will take similar steps in other cities experiencing unrest.
Portland city leaders say the feds are only escalating the conflict and have told Mr. Trump to butt out. Mayor Ted Wheeler has even shown up on site to express solidarity with the protesters and got a face full of tear gas.
“I saw what it means when the federal government unleashes paramilitary forces against its own people,” Mr. Wheeler said in a Twitter post.
Early in the riots a Portland office belonging to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a sister agency to CBP, was firebombed. Other federal property targeted, in addition to the Hatfield Courthouse, includes an office building and two historic courthouses. One of them, the Pioneer Courthouse, is the oldest federal building in the Northwest.
In Seattle, up Interstate 5 from Portland, federal agents also were summoned to defend federal property including the courthouse, where rioters broke into the building, detonated a smoke bomb, torched an American flag and splattered walls with graffiti.
Seattle police declared a riot this weekend after a massive march ended with business windows shattered, fires set at a children’s courthouse and a bomb that blew a hole in a police precinct wall.
As in Portland, police used pepper spray and blast balls to try to control the crowd and made dozens of arrests. They reported that 21 officers were injured, though few were severe. One officer was treated at a hospital for a knee injury.
The Seattle City Council passed an ordinance banning less-lethal tactics, but a federal judge blocked that measure Saturday.
U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran, whose jurisdiction includes Seattle, said federal agents have also been “summoned” to protect federal buildings there.
Mr. Bishop, the CBP official who issued the new guidance on lasers, said agents who are targeted should first issue a verbal warning then decide whether less-lethal force is justified. The calculation should be based on the crime committed and the level of danger.
He said without a threat of serious bodily injury or death, “CBP does not recognize the threat of handheld visible lasers as one that would require a deadly force response.”
Other agencies are also stepping up their defenses. The Federal Protective Service is buying 1,000 pairs of Stingerhawk protective eyewear, which is supposed to defend against green, blue and violet lasers. The contract, reported by Willamette Week, is for $125,000, or $125 per pair — a steep discount on the list price of $199.
In its contract document, the Federal Protective Service says the lasers can lead to dark spots, hazy vision, headaches or retinal bleeding.
“In recent protests in the Pacific Northwest and around the U.S. an increasingly common tactic of demonstrators and rioters has been the use of laser pointers against line officers. These lasers are easily accessible and affordable,” the Federal Protective Service said.
The violent protests have divided the country along ideological lines.
Liberal officials from across the country have weighed in supporting Mr. Wheeler and the Portland demonstrators, labeling the president “fascist” and calling federal agents and officers “stormtroopers” engaged in unlawful occupation.
Law enforcement officials, though, say those critics are feeding off rumors and ignoring facts on the ground, which show federal officers using the same tactics such as unmarked vehicles that are available to any local force.
Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney in Colorado, wrote an op-ed over the weekend defending what the feds are doing in Portland. He said agents are protecting federal property and have not, as critics claim, been snatching agitators off other city streets, nor have they been taking them to secret holding facilities.
“Time and due process will tell if any laws or procedures were broken. If so, those responsible will be held accountable,” Mr. Dunn wrote.
He said critics are also conflating the two roles federal officers have. In Portland, they are defending federal property. Elsewhere, Justice Department personnel are being deployed as part of Operation Legend, an effort to stem homicides in places such as Chicago and Kansas City.
• Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.
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