The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Badge-less police officers are showing up at protests. It’s dangerous.

A line of police officers form behind a fence in Lafayette Square on June 2 as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Garrett M. Graff is a journalist, historian and the author of “The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11.″

Scores of armed, helmeted men in blue and olive drab shirts took up positions around the nation’s capital last week, many without uniforms, badges or formal markings. They seemed to be police — but were they really?

And if they were law enforcement, why were they being so cagey? Against the backdrop of widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality, the anonymous cops seemed to be sending their own message: We’re unaccountable and untraceable.

In the midst of generational unrest, it is not unreasonable to ask: Are these officers the vanguard of a new U.S. secret police, another step down the path toward authoritarianism? After all, what are secret police other than anonymous agents of the state charged with intimidating and silencing dissident citizens? The idea of unmarked, un-badged paramilitaries patrolling America’s streets brings to mind the East German Stasi, or the gangs of hired thugs recruited by the Egyptian government to attack the Tahrir Square democracy protesters in 2011.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

The presence of un-badged officers was not limited to Washington; videos in multiple cities surfaced of officers refusing to identify themselves and taping over their badges even as they confronted protesters with batons and pepper spray. A video over the weekend from San Diego showed men in military gear charging from unmarked vehicles at a group of Black Lives Matter protesters, wrestling a woman into their vehicle and driving off. “Who are you?” shout the group of protesters on the street. “Follow us and you will get shot,” replies a helmeted man carrying a rifle. The officers would turn out to be members of the San Diego Police Department.

Nor is it reassuring that the badgeless forces have appeared in the immediate aftermath of weeks of protests by heavily armed white militias against state stay-at-home orders in the era of covid-19. Two decades of rising police department militarization and white-nationalist militia cosplay seem to be converging in a way that has made it difficult for protesters to know whether those who are supposedly responsible for public safety are still accountable to the public.

It is not a big jump from governments sending in un-badged police to governments letting self-appointed vigilantes take over policing. Indeed, in places such as Stillwater, Okla., and Colorado Springs over the weekend, armed militia members did show up to Black Lives Matter protests; in Colorado Springs, they told protest organizers they were there “to keep things from getting out of hand.”

This development is dangerous — for public safety, for free speech and for democracy. “The No-Badge practices seem designed to instill fear and to intimidate people from exercising rights protected by the First Amendment,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which sent a letter of objection to Attorney General William P. Barr. “They also conceal information that the public has a right to know. There is no legitimate justification for these practices, and they should have no place in any free society.”

In the District, most of the badge-free forces turned out to be guards repurposed from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, imported from around the country by Barr. Barr’s prison troopers stood out, in part, because their behavior ran so counter to the normal operations of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police, who usually take the lead in facing protesters in the capital: D.C. law actually requires “enhanced identification” for all personnel policing First Amendment assemblies, guaranteeing that officers’ names or badge numbers are visible even when they wear riot gear.

Federal Prisons Director Michael Carvajal offered a tepid apology that seemed to underscore how ill-prepared the guards were to step into the daylight of a street demonstration: “We normally operate within the confines of our institution, and we don’t need to identify ourselves.” Barr sounded less concerned. “In the federal system, we don’t wear badges with our names,” he said.

Barr’s move drew quick condemnation. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) quickly announced a new bill “requiring unidentified law enforcement officers and members of the Armed Forces to clearly identify themselves and their agency or service while they are engaged in crowd control or arresting individuals involved in civil disobedience or protests in the United States.”

Of course, the immediate danger that comes with letting cops go unmarked is well documented in many cities’ experience with plainclothes officers. Undercover cops — often gung-ho units targeting street crime, guns and gangs — have been a consistent source of the loudest complaints about police-as-occupiers in inner cities. It was four plainclothes officers from the New York Police Department’s now-disbanded Street Crimes Unit who confronted and killed an unarmed street vendor, Amadou Diallo, in 1999, firing 41 shots, as he approached his apartment door and reached for his wallet. An investigation of NYPD shootings by the Intercept found that plainclothes officers — who account for approximately 6 percent of the force — are responsible for nearly a third of the department’s fatal shootings.

But there is a dramatic difference between undercover operations targeting illegal activities of a specific kind and anonymous federal forces ringing the White House and providing “security” at constitutionally protected gatherings. In a democracy, after all, it’s the police who are meant to answer to the protesters — not the other way around.

The police crackdown on largely peaceful protests has shown that bad cops are largely protected, covered for and shielded from liability, says Radley Balko. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images/The Washington Post)

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