Staff Columnist

What happened in Portland could happen in Iowa City or Des Moines, too

Federal police are already in every state, and Trump is prepared to use them

Police respond to protesters during a demonstration,  Friday, July 17, 2020 in Portland, Ore. Militarized federal agents
Police respond to protesters during a demonstration, Friday, July 17, 2020 in Portland, Ore. Militarized federal agents deployed by the president to Portland, fired tear gas against protesters again overnight as the city’s mayor demanded that the agents be removed and as the state’s attorney general vowed to seek a restraining order against them. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP)

Americans have been dismayed to see “secret police” snatching up political dissidents off the street and threatening to shoot would-be interveners.

That’s what happened in Portland, Ore., this month, and it could happen in Iowa, too. The federal government’s gigantic and secretive police apparatus is all around us, and it’s getting bigger.

In recent weeks, federal officers have been deployed to at least 10 states to police “civil unrest” during racial justice and anti-police brutality demonstrations, including Iowa’s neighbors Illinois and Minnesota, according to documents published by the Nation magazine. The show of force has consisted of more than 2,100 personnel, dozens of aircraft and more than 100 marked and unmarked vehicles, journalist Ken Klippenstein reported.


We built a machine for stopping terrorists and then turned it against Americans, even as the country continued a long-term decline in crime.


“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship. We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the President of the United States.” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said last week after calling on U.S. Homeland Security personnel to leave her state.

Trump did not build this behemoth, but he’s putting it to plenty of use.

The number of full-time federal law enforcement officers grew by about 40 percent from 2002 to 2016, reaching 132,000 in the latest federal tally available on the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ website. There probably are more than that now, under President Donald Trump’s expansion of immigration enforcement.

The central government’s power grabs follow a predictable path — law enforcement capabilities are established in the name of national security but often end up being used for immigration and drug enforcement.

Eventually, they might be used against vandals and anti-government protesters as we recently saw. Further, Trump suggested last week that additional federal police will have some sort of sustained presence in major cities, including Chicago and Milwaukee, to promote law and order.

Trump abuses his executive powers in new ways, but bipartisan Congresses and three presidential administrations have expanded the scope of federal law enforcement during the past two decades, purportedly to stop terrorists. The Department of Homeland Security — which led the ugly crackdown in Portland and where the largest share of federal police are assigned — was organized less than 20 years ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Electing more Democrats won’t stop police brutality or racial disparities

What did Iowans think all this riot gear was for?

Even when there is no civil unrest, federal police are active in every state. At least four federal law enforcement agencies have offices in Iowa: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Customs and Border Protection; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the U.S. Marshals in Iowa.

Federal agents work alongside local authorities through drug task forces, where police departments and sheriff’s offices get access to awesome federal resources in their hunt for drug criminals. This often is organized on an agency-by-agency basis with no uniform reporting to the public, effectively diminishing public oversight on federal activity in our own communities.

The feds also rely on local support to identify and detain undocumented immigrants. Federal enforcement projects have ravaged Iowa communities, as when 32 were arrested in Mount Pleasant in 2018 and almost 400 were arrested in Postville in 2008.

All this is done without adequate oversight or accountability. The enormity of the police state ensures its opacity — journalists and citizens can’t request information about operations they don’t know exist. The attacks on our civil liberties come so fast that it’s hard for watchdogs to keep up.

We built a machine for stopping terrorists and then turned it against Americans, even as the country continued a long-term decline in crime.

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Are we safer for it? To the contrary, the government’s aggressive and militarized responses might make situations worse and provoke unrest.

In a letter last week to the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, six mayors make it clear that federal police are making American cities less safe: “Their actions have escalated events and increased the risk of violence against both civilians and local law enforcement officers.”

Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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