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New Law Forces Federal Agents to ID Themselves to Protesters

By Andrew Leonatti on January 05, 2021

The nation was rocked last summer by large racial justice protests. While the vast majority of them featured thousands of peaceful protesters asserting their First Amendment rights, some gatherings did turn violent.

To quell the unrest, President Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr argued for a federal response in several cities, sending in armed agents from a host of different federal law enforcement agencies.

The only problem is that many of those agents would not identify themselves, even when they were apprehending protesters. A new law passed at the end of the 116th Congress will now require more transparency from the federal government in future encounters with protesters.

A Summer of Unnamed "Security Forces" on US Streets

In Portland, Oregon, which featured some of the longest-lasting protests of the summer, masked, camouflaged federal officers showed up with little more than badges that said "police" on them.

It turned out that many were officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Officials argued the lack of identification was necessary to protect officers from reprisals from protesters, such as having home addresses posted online.

Similar scenes occurred in Washington, D.C., with officers from the federal Bureau of Prisons.

The big problem for protesters is this: It is hard to tell unidentified federal officers apart from private security guards, which many businesses hired this summer to protect their property from looting and vandalism. If an "officer" without ID tries to arrest or detain you, how can you know if this is a legitimate arrest or not? Should you run, or should you comply?

New Law Provides Transparency

A new law adopted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, enacted earlier this month as the end of the 116th Congress was quickly approaching, is being hailed as a win for protesters.

The new law will require that whenever "a member of the armed forces or Federal law enforcement personnel provide support to Federal authorities to respond to a civil disturbance," those personnel must "visibly display" each officer's name — or another individual identifier — and the name of the agency they are a part of.

There are small exceptions for officers who go undercover or do not wear a uniform as part of their official duties.

The ACLU applauded the bill's adoption, but cautioned that officers may try to rely on displaying badge numbers instead of their names, which can be harder for protesters to remember.

"Still," the organization said, "the message that Congress is sending to the executive branch and enshrining into statute is unmistakable: Secret police forces patrolling our neighborhoods in response to protests and other mass gatherings ... do not belong in a democracy such as the United States."

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