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.”