Interior watchdog to probe US Park Police clash with demonstrators

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up a Bible outside of St John's Episcopal church across Lafayette Park in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)****
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By Benjamin J. Hulac CQ-Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON — More than two weeks after the U.S. Park Police and other federal law officers forcefully cleared Lafayette Square of protesters, the agency is under scrutiny from the Interior Department’s inspector general, Congress and the public over its tactics.

Interior’s Office of Inspector General, according to congressional sources, is investigating the role of the Park Police on June 1, when it and other law enforcement agencies and the National Guard used chemical gases, pepper balls, riot shields and batons to push demonstrators from the square. Afterward, President Donald Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Church, where he held aloft a Bible for news cameras.

An announcement about the probe was expected from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Tuesday. Congressional Democrats and an independent demanded that the inspector general for Interior, Mark Greenblatt, open an investigation into the Park Police activities that day.

Citizens were demonstrating against police violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police. A white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, who has been indicted on murder charges, knelt on Floyd’s back and neck for nearly nine minutes — a killing that set off global protests.

Wyden — along with Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Angus King, I-Maine, and Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Deb Haaland, D-N.M. — has demanded answers from Interior Department about the incidents that day and why chemical agents were used against civilians.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has clashed with Democrats over the role of the Park Police, which led the push, on foot and on horseback, to break up the protests.

“Beginning on Saturday May, 30, 2020, the USPP were under a state of siege and routinely subject to attack by violent crowds,” Bernhardt wrote to Grijalva, whose committee oversees Interior.

Grijalva responded by disputing the severity of injuries suffered by Park Police officers and, after Bernhardt offered, said he and Haaland would be happy to visit any officers who have been hospitalized because of the June 1 actions.

“Please identify a date and time when we can speak with any U.S. Park Police officer injured on June 1, as well as the leadership of the force,” Grijalva wrote to Bernhardt. “We will also invite victims of USPP violence during this incident to participate.”

Lafayette Square, north of the White House, is a federal park and falls under Park Police jurisdiction. USPP Acting Chief Gregory T. Monahan on June 13 said his agency’s officers broke up the protests not so Trump could stop in front of the church but to allow a fence to be erected in front of the White House.

The Park Police initially denied that it used tear gas, then rescinded that statement.

“On June 1, USPP officers and other assisting law enforcement partners operating under the command of the USPP did not use tear gas or Skat Shells to close the area at Lafayette Park. Subsequently, the fence was installed,” Monahan said.

Reporters and demonstrators found Skat Shells, silver metal canisters used to spray tear gas, during and after the clearing of the park and posted images online.

Pepper sprays and pepper balls, fired projectiles, are defined under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “riot control” agents, which are “chemical compounds that temporarily make people unable to function by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs and skin.”

The Park Police SWAT team and some of its mounted units were present at the June 1 clearing.

The USPP has said it reassigned two officers who, with a riot shield and baton, beat a two-person TV team from Australia, an announcement that came after Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison demanded an inquiry.

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