WASHINGTON – A top Trump administration official dismissed the uproar over the use of unmarked vehicles by federal agents during protests in Portland – saying it's "so common it's barely worth discussion."
"Literally, every police department in America has them," Department of Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said Monday on CNN's New Day.
Controversy erupted last week after news reports that unidentified federal officers in unmarked vans were snatching protesters off Portland's streets and detaining them, as protests over the death of George Floyd stretched into several weeks. Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, died in police custody after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and the incident has sparked a national reckoning over police violence against African Americans.
Cuccinelli's comments come as President Donald Trump announces his administration is drawing up plans to send law enforcement personnel to other cities he claims are besieged by "anarchists," although he provided few details.
"Well, I'm going to do something, that I can tell you," Trump told reporters at the White House Monday, vowing to send more law enforcement personnel to Portland and praising federal officers' actions there.
The heavy federal presence in Portland has drawn criticisms from Democratic lawmakers, civil rights groups and local leaders who saw the deployments as unwelcome intrusion.
On CNN, Cuccinelli seemed to draw similarities between federal officers' use of unmarked vehicles in Portland with practices by local police departments.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said while police officers use unmarked vehicles, they are usually in uniform and have names or badge numbers. In Washington, D.C., it's not uncommon for police to use unmarked minivans, but officers are identifiable, Wexler said.
"And that’s important. If you’re a citizen, you don’t know who you’re dealing with unless they’re clearly marked," Wexler said.
Local and state police departments also use unmarked cars during traffic patrols, but not without controversy. Last month, the state Supreme Court in New Mexico ruled that suspects in high-speed chases cannot be prosecuted if they are pursued by an officer in an unmarked car.
Protester Conner O'Shea, 30, told USA TODAY that he and his friend were pursued by men they believed to be federal officers as they were heading back to their car in downtown Portland after participating in protests last week. As they were walking, an unmarked van pulled over to a sidewalk and "four or five dudes in camo jump out and start charging at us" O'Shea said, adding that he did not see any badges or insignia on the officers.
O'Shea and his friend ran in opposite directions. He said his friend, Mark Pettibone, 29, was picked up by the federal officers. Pettibone, who did not return calls from USA TODAY, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that he was "tossed into the van" and later placed in a cell without being told why he was being arrested. After he declined to answer questions and told the officers he wanted a lawyer, he was released, Pettibone said.
In a statement Friday, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed that it detained a protester but disputed accounts that it did so without cause. The agency, which did not name Pettibone, said agents had information about a person suspected of assaulting federal agents or destroying federal property.
"Once CBP agents approached the suspect, a large and violent mob moved towards their location. For everyone's safety, CBP agents quickly moved the suspect to a safer location for further questioning," the department said, adding that agents identified themselves and were wearing the agency's insignia.
The statement did not address the use of unmarked vans.
In the interview with CNN, Cuccinelli also defended the Trump administration's militaristic response to the unrest in Portland, saying officials had received intelligence about planned attacks on federal facilities there.
"If we get the same kind of intelligence in other places ... we would respond the same way," Cuccinelli said.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said last week that she told Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf to "remove all federal officers" from Portland's streets.
Lawmakers from Oregon have asked the inspectors general of the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to investigate, denouncing the “unrequested presence and violent actions” of federal officers in the city.
“The jarring reports of federal law enforcement officers grabbing peaceful protesters off the street should alarm every single American. This is not the way a government operates in a functioning democracy,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, said in a statement.
Chairmen of the House Judiciary, Armed Services and Homeland Security committees have also called for an investigation on the use of force by federal officers.
"As Americans across the country exercise their First Amendment rights, the Trump Administration has repeatedly deployed federal law enforcement officials to try to silence them," Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, Adam Smith, D-Washington, and Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, said in a joint statement Monday. "Americans are watching the latest deeply disturbing use of federal law enforcement in Portland," the three committee chairmen said.
Contributing: Lindsey Schnell, David Jackson and John Fritze
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Portland protests: DHS official Ken Cuccinelli defends federal actions