SecDef Wants to Stop Federal Law Enforcement Agents Dressing Like US Troops

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Federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters.
Federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Monday, July 20, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

The American public should not be confused about the difference between uniformed military personnel and police officers.

That's the belief of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who is concerned about personnel from across the country wearing camouflage uniforms, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Tuesday. He made the comments after federal agents in Portland, Oregon, were photographed rounding up protesters and escorting them to unmarked vehicles -- all while in uniforms similar to those worn by U.S. troops.

"We want a system where people can tell the difference," Hoffman said, adding, "I can say unequivocally there are no Department of Defense assets that have been deployed to, pending deployment to, or we're looking to deploy to Portland."

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Oregon's Democratic Gov. Kate Brown told PBS NewsHour on Monday that "Trump's troops" had arrived in the city and were "pouring gasoline on a fire."

The personnel in Portland are not troops, but Department of Homeland Security agents dispatched to the city after weeks of protests following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody. Floyd's death prompted protests in cities nationwide over racism and police violence toward Black people.

Confusion over who's who in camouflage uniforms hasn't been limited to Oregon. Hoffman said there were concerns about police officers wearing similar uniforms to National Guard troops deployed to respond to protests in June as well.

"There are some law enforcement [who] wear uniforms that make them appear military," Hoffman said. "And the secretary has expressed his concern with this within the administration."

Defense leaders are in the process of reviewing the military's response to protests in the wake of Floyd's death, and Hoffman said Esper made clear that the issue of police officers wearing camouflage uniforms is something the defense secretary "wanted to have looked at."

"He has expressed his concern that in some cases law enforcement appropriately performing law enforcement duties were misconstrued with military personnel, who would not be appropriately doing those [duties]," he added.

The review could lead to a meeting with the attorney general and Homeland Security secretary over the uniform issue, but Hoffman said there's not yet a timeline on when that would take place or what Esper's request might be.

Responses to protests across the country have raised questions about the military's practice of selling old equipment to state or local police departments. Some members of Congress are pushing to end the practice through new proposals making their way into the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act now being debated on Capitol Hill.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling wrote in The Washington Post this week that, when training Iraqi police officers, he wouldn't allow them to wear camouflage uniforms. They wanted police there to be visible on the streets or in marked vehicles wearing blue uniforms with name tags and badge numbers, he said.

"Camo should be saved for when you're trying to blend in or hide, not when you're patrolling the streets on foot or in cars," Hertling added.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: Army Ordered to Review National Guard Response to Protests

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