Opinion | Federal Agents Don’t Need Army Fatigues

Masked men, clad indistinguishably from soldiers, yanking civilians off the street in the dead of night and throwing them into unmarked cars is the modus operandi of totalitarian regimes — or the stuff of dystopian fiction.

But that’s now the reality in America. In recent weeks, the Department of Homeland Security has sent hundreds of federal agents into Portland, Ore., to quell protests over racism and police violence.

The Justice Department and the Oregon governor appear to have negotiated a withdrawal of those agents. But Bill Barr, the attorney general, told Congress this week that federal agents would be headed to other cities, including Cleveland, Milwaukee and Detroit. On Monday, the mayors of Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Albuquerque, Washington and Kansas City, Mo., sent a letter to Congress asking for legislation to stop the Trump administration from deploying federal agents to cities without their consent. Federal agents should assist local jurisdictions, if they ask. But, at least in the case of Portland, the conduct of federal officers clearly made a bad situation worse.

Many of those federal agents aren’t easily recognizable as law enforcement officials, nor do they act like them. Even the military is concerned about the public confusion sewn into society when heavily armed federal agents dress like soldiers. All the more reason that the federal agents on the streets of American cities be required to wear uniforms that clearly identify themselves and their civilian agency.

Complicating matters even more for the average American are the other masked and armed men who have also appeared at public demonstrations in the United States over the past few months — lockdown protesters, anti-government activists, white supremacists, self-declared “militias.” To the unschooled eye, they look remarkably similar, both in the flesh and in the millions of images flitting around the globe at the speed of social media.

Camouflage uniforms are intended to conceal a person’s presence and intentions from an enemy, or hunters from their quarry. But in our masked and militarized moment, the righteous should make every effort to publicly stand out from the wicked. The only reason to wear camouflage in an urban setting — be it federal agents or self-declared militia members — is intimidation.

If officers were easily identifiable, it would be harder for them to get away with thrashing unarmed Americans with nightsticks, shattering their bones as the camera phones roll.

A new bill, introduced by Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., would require on-duty federal and local law enforcement officers to identify themselves at all times, by name, agency and badge number. That’s a good start, but is also insufficient.

Discarding the woodland camouflage, military-style weaponry and violent tactics while on urban policing duty in Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin would send an even clearer signal that federal agents intend to protect the peace, not wage a war.

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