Who has been deployed on the streets of Washington?

Among the many cities where Americans are protesting the police killing of George Floyd, none have seen a bigger display of law-enforcement might than Washington, the nation’s capital. 

National Guard, riot police and law-enforcement officials have been deployed around the city, as layers of fencing around the White House insulate Donald Trump from protesters who have gathered outside every day for almost a week. 

Flanked by federal agency directors at a press conference on Thursday, US attorney-general William Barr defended his decision to take command and deploy officers from multiple law enforcement agencies after violence over the weekend.

Mr Barr said he did so in response to a request from the president after “very serious” rioting over the weekend — citing a break-in at a Treasury department annex building, arson at a federal building and paving stones dug out and flung at Secret Service and other federal agents over the weekend, with 114 law-enforcement officers hurt.

Who exactly is guarding the streets of the capital, and who do they answer to?

What military troops have been sent to the capital?

There are no active-duty military troops deployed in Washington, although the Pentagon sent 1,300 regular army troops to areas just outside the capital as a precautionary measure in case vandals attack key targets. 

To date almost more than 4,500 National Guard troops have been deployed in Washington. These include those under the command of the capital’s own National Guard as well as from other states, including Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee, which have lent forces on a temporary basis.

How does the National Guard differ from the regular army? 

The National Guard is a reserve of 450,000 citizen-soldiers who serve on a part-time basis, are drawn from their local communities, answer to state governors and are trained in disaster response and supporting civilian authorities.

State governors also determine how the National Guard is armed.

The National Guard in Washington says troops under its command in the capital carry neither lethal weapons nor non-lethal weapons, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.

By contrast, federal troops, which include active-duty military and reserve military forces, are trained for combat against enemy forces.

Donald Trump has threatened to “federalise” the National Guard — which could give him the power to send them where he wants, even over the objection of a state’s governor. He has also vowed to invoke the Insurrection Act to send regular troops into states if necessary. However, Mr Trump’s defence secretary, Mark Esper, has said he is opposed to using the 1807 law to make that happen.

National security experts say active-duty forces are an inappropriate solution for domestic unrest, because it sends the wrong message and risks heavy-handed overreaction.

Who does the National Guard answer to?

All military deployed to the capital, including National Guard forces from other states and any active-duty troops, are under the command of the Washington National Guard commanding general, Major General William Walker. He answers to the secretary of the army, Ryan McCarthy, since Washington is not a state and has no governor.

“To maintain peace and order and public safety, the secretary has given Maj Gen Walker direction to support district law enforcement agencies and protect buildings, federal installations and monuments,” Mr McCarthy’s office said.

But the US Army said National Guard troops were only lending support to the overall effort, which it said was led by the Department of Justice. Mr Barr, as attorney-general, leads the DoJ.

What are the police doing?

Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, which has 3,800 officers in the capital and has deployed throughout the city, reports to mayor Muriel Bowser. Ms Bowser and the city’s police chief, Peter Newsham, have opposed efforts to “federalise” the police force, which would put them under the White House’s control.

The MPD also directs federal assets that have been requested by Ms Bowser. She has criticised the violent break-up of peaceful protesters outside the White House on Monday by federal assets not under her command as “shameful”, and said the aggressive federal response was making her job “more difficult”.

What other civilian law enforcement officers have been deployed?

Officers from at least 10 federal law enforcement units from different civilian agencies are on the streets of the capital under the lead authority of Mr Barr and the DoJ. Earlier this week Mr Barr personally directed the expansion of a perimeter around the White House to protect a historic church that was vandalised in protests the night before — which resulted in peaceful protesters being forcibly cleared so Mr Trump could walk to the church and be in a picture holding a Bible in front of it.

Units from the FBI, the Secret Service, the US Park Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Prisons, the US Marshals Service, the Capitol Police and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, among others, have been sent on to Washington’s streets, Mr Barr said.

While the National Guard troops deployed to Washington do not carry weapons, other officers have been armed with and used pepper spray, flash grenades, smoke canisters, batons and rubber bullets.

The director of the DEA, Timothy Shea, said 150 of his agents had been deployed and provided 11 mobile response teams. He said his officers had recovered weapons from some areas and had rocks thrown at their vehicles.

The Bureau of Prisons — which guards federal jails — said it was lending officers at the request of the attorney-general. They are drawn from two crisis management teams: the Special Operations Response Teams, which it describes as highly trained tactical units capable of responding to prison disturbances, and its Disturbance Control Teams, which specialise in crowd-control scenarios. It refused to give numbers.

CBP — whose mission is to prevent terrorism, control the US border and police trade — has also deployed more than 350 law enforcement personnel in the Washington area at the request of federal partners.

“CBP will not sit idly by while vagrants exploit our great community,” said acting commissioner Mark Morgan.

Are the officers identifiable?

Some of the officers among the support elements bear no identification — which has raised alarms. Peter Singer, a military strategist, said law officers wear insignia and name plates to reassure the public their orders are lawful and to ensure accountability should they abuse power.

He criticised the presence of unidentified officers on the streets of the capital as akin to “little green men”, a reference to unmarked troops that invaded Ukraine who answered, it was later discovered, to Russia. 

Don Beyer, a Democratic congressman for Virginia, said it was “unacceptable for uniformed federal officers policing constitutionally-protected assemblies to refuse to identify themselves to people who pay their salaries”. He said was working on legislation to stop this.

Bureau of Prisons director Michael Carvajal said on Thursday that he “probably should have done a better job of marking them [his officers] nationally as the agency”. But he said there was no specific instruction not to identify themselves.

Mr Barr said on Thursday that federal prison guards did not usually wear badges and names and were not used to identifying themselves.

“I could understand why some of these individuals simply wouldn’t want to talk to people about who they are,” said Mr Barr.

How long will it last?

It is unclear how long the protests will go on after almost a week of daily demonstrations. But on Thursday, Mr Barr said authorities would collapse the perimeter around the White House and remove some checkpoints to create “more of a low-profile footprint” after a relatively quiet Wednesday night.

Ms Bowser also lifted a 7pm curfew in Washington for Thursday, the first in five nights in the capital without a curfew. She said at a press conference that she wanted to see out-of-state National Guard leave the city as soon as possible.

Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington

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