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Park Police chief says he knew Trump was coming, but Lafayette Square clearing was unrelated

Gregory Monahan says need to build fence at park created urgency to forcibly evict protesters.

Acting U.S. Park Police chief Gregory T. Monahan testifies during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on police clashes with protesters on June 1. To his right is an officer's helmet that Monahan said had been damaged by a brick. (Pool/Reuters)

The acting chief of the U.S. Park Police told a House committee on Tuesday that he was informed on June 1 that President Trump would be visiting Lafayette Square later that day, but that the decision to forcefully clear protesters from the park at 6:30 that evening was unrelated to Trump’s visit soon after the dramatic use of force. He said the two events occurring within a half-hour was a coincidence.

The timing of the police push, using smoke, projectiles and chemical irritants against the large group of protesters, followed almost immediately by Trump’s appearance on the same spot, caused the House Natural Resources Committee to investigate, and to summon acting Park Police chief Gregory T. Monahan. Democrats on the committee argued that the police were used by Trump for political purposes, to clear the way for a photo opportunity at St. John’s Church.

Monahan said the Park Police decided to erect a fence on the north end of Lafayette Square, and “there is 100 percent zero correlation between our operation and the president’s visit to the church.” Monahan said protesters had been violent at the park for three days prior to June 1, and that his officers were under assault from projectiles again that day. That claim was contested by an Army National Guard major who testified later.

The acting chief said he felt his officers “acted with tremendous restraint in the face of severe violence from a large group of bad actors,” and “did not clear the park for the photo op.”

Monahan also revealed that the Park Police have not been able to record their radio transmissions during special events for nearly two years, leaving no audio record of the events. He said a new digital radio system installed in September 2018 was wrongly configured to record only one dispatch channel, and that was only discovered last month.

Park Police did not record their radio transmissions during Lafayette Square operation on June 1

Instead, the Park Police keep a written log of what is said during such events, Monahan said. He would not commit to providing such logs to the committee, saying he needed to consult with his department’s lawyers.

A legal settlement with the Park Police over their handling of previous demonstrations in Washington requires them to make three audible announcements before taking physical action against protesters. Adam D. DeMarco, the Army National Guard major who also testified Tuesday, said the warnings issued June 1 were made by a handheld megaphone and couldn’t be heard by the protesters, though Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said a CNN reporter at the park tweeted about the warnings as they were made.

Monahan said the warnings were issued using a “long-range acoustic device,” which he said would carry about 600 meters, and that the protesters were much closer than that. The settlement also requires Park Police to stand behind protesters to ensure warnings are heard, but Monahan did not say whether officers were positioned behind the crowd.

Monahan’s claim that police used a powerful sonic device to issue the warnings “is simply false,” said David H. Laufman, DeMarco’s attorney. “My client observed the giving of the warnings, and he observed it by means of a handheld megaphone. It’s bizarre they would be making that claim.”

Monahan was also asked about body cameras, which Park Police officers do not wear. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), citing the 2017 slaying of unarmed motorist Bijan Ghaisar by Park Police officers without cameras, asked if Monahan would commit to equipping his force with them if they were funded.

The Park Police, Monahan said, support cameras but are “not in a position to successfully implement, manage, and sustain a body-worn camera program.”

Federal body camera bill, inspired by Park Police killing of Bijan Ghaisar, included in House police reform package

Monahan did not say what time on June 1 he was informed that Trump would be visiting Lafayette Square. Trump walked from the White House with an entourage of officials, including Attorney General William P. Barr and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley, then stood in front of St. John’s church to have his photograph taken while holding a Bible.

“We were notified earlier in the day that the president was going to visit Lafayette Park,” Monahan said in response to a question from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the committee chairman, “to view the damage that was done to the park over the course of the preceding days. But we were not given a time on when he was visiting.”

Shortly after 6 p.m. that day, Barr entered the park and spoke with police, including a Park Police commander, Monahan said, but Monahan said he did not have any interaction with Barr. Barr did not instruct police to clear the protesters, Monahan said. Not long after Barr left the park, the Park Police, Secret Service and Arlington County police lined up on H Street in riot gear, with officers on horseback behind them, and forced protesters away from the park with what Monahan said were smoke canisters, pepper balls and stinger balls (grenade-like devices that unleash small rubber pellets and can spray chemical irritants). He denied that tear gas was used on the protesters.

National Guard officer says police suddenly moved on Lafayette Square protesters, used ‘excessive force’ before Trump visit

DeMarco insisted, from his training at the United States Military Academy and his active duty tours in the Army, that tear gas was used, that he saw tear gas canisters on Park Police officers, and that he found a spent canister on the ground.

Monahan provided a timeline for the construction of a fence along the north side of Lafayette Square, which he said was meant to de-escalate hostilities between police and protesters. He said 50 Park Police officers had been harmed by projectiles from May 29 to May 31, including one struck in the head with a brick. Monahan brought the officer’s damaged helmet to the hearing and placed it on the table in front of him, along with a brick. No Park Police officers were injured by projectiles on June 1, but one was punched in the face during the clearing operation, Monahan said. No one was hurt after the fence went up, the acting chief said.

DeMarco’s testimony, released on Monday, said the fencing did not arrive at the park until around 9 p.m., so there would be no urgency to clear the park before that. But Monahan said the fencing materials arrived at 5:15 p.m. and were placed on 17th Street. He said private fencing company employees entered the park at 6:55 p.m. and began to build the fence at 7:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, Monahan said three warnings were given at 6:23 p.m. to the protesters, and officers began pushing them out at 6:30 p.m. and finished at 6:50 p.m. Trump arrived shortly after 7 p.m. and stayed for about three minutes before walking back to the White House.

Monahan was asked whether it would have been smarter to wait until D.C.'s curfew went into effect at 7 p.m., when many protesters may have begun to leave. “In terms of the curfew,” Monahan said, “that was not something that figured into our thinking.” He said he was not the incident commander and did not give the order to launch the removal of demonstrators, but that the operation was not ordered by the White House or the Justice Department.

DeMarco, who said he followed the Park Police clearing operation down H Street, then was stationed at 16th and H streets, stood by his claim that no fence-building began until 9 p.m., though he acknowledged he may not have seen the materials initially staged away from the park.

DeMarco said the protests on June 1 were nonviolent and that Park Police used excessive force. He said he was at Lafayette Square the night before, and “that was a riot.” On that night, fires were set in the street, in a public bathroom structure and in the annex of St. John’s Church.

“On June 1,” DeMarco said, “it was drastically different than the night before.” He said his Army training requires him to use only the force necessary to deal with the immediate threat, not the threat of previous days, and that the Park Police operation was “an unnecessary escalation of the use of force.”