PORTLAND—Leaders of cities like Portland and Chicago publicly say they don’t want federal law enforcement policing protesters. But as President Donald Trump threatens to send in the troops to a handful of America’s largest cities, some of those same locales’ police unions appear to be circumventing elected officials to work with the feds.
On Monday, Trump indicated a desire to send federal law enforcement to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland, apparently to crush protests there because police are “restricted from doing anything.” His remarks came after federal agents—revealed to be Customs and Border Protection in camouflage uniforms—were deployed to Portland, Oregon, where they faced outcry for shooting a less-lethal projectile into an activist’s head and shoving protesters into unmarked vans.
Although Portland leadership roundly decried the federal presence, the president of Portland’s police union met with the head of the Department of Homeland Security last week to discuss the agents, apparently without the knowledge of the city’s police chief. The president of Chicago’s police union made his own envoys, asking Trump for federal intervention.
Trump might have heard him: 150 federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations are gearing up to head to the city, the Chicago Tribune first reported. Either way, protesters say local cops and the feds are clearly colluding.
At ongoing protests in Portland, officers clad in Portland Police uniforms stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the anonymous feds dressed in camouflage. While Portland Police are bound by a judge’s injunction on the use of non-lethal tactics such as tear gas, the feds aren’t. So the local cops are using the feds as cover, argued Juan Chavez, a Portland civil rights attorney.
“It’s clear to everyone out there that the city is riding the coattails of the feds using tear gas and munitions. And the locals are using their own tactics, like bull rushes on protesters, that seem intentional,” Chavez said.
Meanwhile, Daryl Turner, president of the city’s police union, met with Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf last week, following apparent confusion from the chief of the Portland Bureau of Police over whether officers had met with Wolf. Turner told media that he hoped to help federal agents work more easily with local police.
Turner’s meeting with Wolf came the same month that the Portland Police Association, the local union, passed a vote of no confidence against the city’s elected officials.
“They stand right next to each other and shoot us at the same time,” Portland activist Greg McElvey told The Daily Beast. “That’s usually the telltale. They disperse crowds at the same time, we see them talk to each other. Other than throwing people into vans, this is all stuff the Portland Police were already doing.”
Popular Mobilization, a Portland-based activist group, also accused Portland’s police of working alongside federal forces, and accused Wheeler of only playing progressive.
“Wheeler excoriates Trump on CNN and NPR but conveniently omits how his police force has similarly attacked community members with little to no accountability,” the group told The Daily Beast. “So as police union president Daryl Turner (of PPA) meets with acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and John Cantanzara (of Chicago's FOP) actively invites Trump to bring in federal forces... not only are we not surprised, we know that the complicity of city, state, and federal officials have paved the way for this authoritarian collaboration.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office issued the following statement on the subject Monday: “The federal law enforcement was not brought in at our request and does not act under our direction. Federal Protective Service reports only to their chain of command, Department of Homeland Security. They are protecting federal facilities. FPS is enforcing federal law. FPS is not embedded with local police nor is PPB embedded with FPS.”
But Wheeler also tweeted Saturday that he had that day “directed that staff who are part of federal agency operations are no longer allowed to co-locate with the police bureau’s incident command,” adding that sharing a space had “helped facilitate clear communication,” before the feds overstepped.
That, to protesters, seemed like a clear admission that a city official who now claims to be outraged at the federal presence was in fact in cahoots with Trump’s troops all along. Portland Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The head of Chicago’s police union also courted federal action. In an open letter on the union’s Facebook page, the union head decried unspecified “chaos” in the city and slammed Chicago’s mayor for failing to maintain “law and order.” The letter asked Trump for “help from the federal government.” (Chicago is currently experiencing an uptick in gun violence. Trump has previously threatened to send troops to Chicago to fight crime, including in 2017.)
The union’s vice president Michael Mette told The Daily Beast on Monday that his organization would welcome federal agents like those from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. “If we could get extra agents on the ground, that would help,” he said. “We don’t want troops-troops, but anything that can help.”
Asked whether he would support CBP agents, like those currently acting in Portland, Mette neither invited them nor discouraged their arrival. “Why would we have Border Patrol in the city? We have no international border here,” he said. In a statement, a Chicago Police spokesperson said the agency had no authority over federal agents and that, while it regularly works with feds, it is crucial that those departments coordinate with them.
Neither Portland nor Oregon have international borders. Nevertheless, CBP agents have maintained an aggressive presence in Portland, ostensibly to protect a federal court building. Mette said he’d only seen videos of CBP agents in that context.
“In Portland, the only video I saw over there was of people protecting their own building, and at that point, they have to do what they have to do to protect themselves,” he said.
While police unions have long been viewed as an obstacle to reform—and bastions of pro-Trump sentiment—the union leadership of at least one city where Trump threatened to send troops said they weren’t wanted there.
Barry Donelan, president of Oakland, California’s police union, told The Daily Beast that federal forces didn’t have the know-how to police his city.
“I don’t know where he’s coming from,” Donelan said of Trump. “In a city like Oakland, and in most local communities, you want local police officers to do the policing. We know the community, the challenges. While we appreciate federal law enforcement, policing in Oakland is for Oakland police officers.”
“I’m an Oakland officer,” Donelan said. “Even me getting transferred tomorrow to San Diego would be a challenge. It’s the same state, same laws, but a challenge. Put me in Nevada, it’s a whole different ball game.”
Where officers like Donelan and anti-police protesters differ, however, is their stance on local cops. Donelan maintains that what Oakland needs are more local police officers, while nationwide calls to defund or fully abolish the police say departments need to scale back or disappear entirely.
Activists on the ground described the federal presence as the extension of a creeping law enforcement crackdown. PopMob, the Portland activist group, noted that federal agents with ICE had long been sweeping up their undocumented neighbors.
“As much as folks are shocked about what has been happening in PDX with feds detaining protesters,” the group said, “these kinds of horrific tactics have been used against undocumented folks for years.”