Philadelphia quietly called on federal police for backup during June protests

Jordan Johnson speaks to another protester at a demonstration in Philadelphia against federal law enforcement presence in Portland, Oregon. (Brett Sholtis/WITF)

Jordan Johnson speaks to another protester at a demonstration in Philadelphia against federal law enforcement presence in Portland, Oregon. (Brett Sholtis/WITF)

In the wake of clashes in Portland between federal agents and protesters, the Trump Administration said this week it would also send federal troops to other cities experiencing violent protests. 

This list included Philadelphia — where demonstrations have been peaceful for more than a month — provoking outcry from Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Mayor Jim Kenney. 

But in early June, at the height of protest activity, Philadelphia officials were on a different tack.  Their request for National Guard troops was well-documented, but the city was also quietly requesting support from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

They wanted the agency to provide “aerial surveillance” and “operational support” during civil unrest, according to a document drafted by CBP in response to questions from U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

The draft was first published and reported on by The Nation.

In the document, Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management is listed as requesting and receiving “tactical air support/aerial surveillance.” The Philadelphia Police Department asked for assistance in the form of “aerial surveillance to provide down-link to the [Emergency Operations Center],” as well as “general operational support. Specific assignments TBD.”

Protests have largely dissipated in Philadelphia. However, concerns about federal law enforcement being deployed to American cities have spiked as federal agents in unmarked vehicles made arrests in Portland in recent weeks. This document indicates many were already sent to cities across the United States, upon the specific request of local law enforcement.

While light on the specific details, the document did give hints as to how federal agents were deployed. “38 rotor wing, 8 fixed wing, and 2 unmanned aircraft systems” were sent out to nine states, including Pennsylvania, as well as Washington, D.C. between May 29 and June 10. The aircraft have “cameras, radar, and/or other technologies to support CBP’s components in patrolling the border” onboard, according to the document. From May 31 to June 11, CBP sent 2,174 personnel around the country in response to dozens of solicitations for backup.

When asked if officers, who traditionally enforce the United States’ civil immigration laws, may be carrying out immigration arrests in cities, the agency responded that these “deployments were about supporting the efforts of our federal, state and local partners, not about carrying out CBP’s immigration enforcement mission.”

A CBP spokesman responded to a request for more information saying, “I am unable to provide you with specifics regarding assets that may have been deployed in the Philadelphia area.” The agency shared general information about its air and marine operations, which may be deployed “to assist with law enforcement, search and rescue, and humanitarian relief efforts.”

City officials offered this statement in return for a request for comment:

“At the request of the Police Department, OEM requested aerial support from local, state, and federal agencies through PEMA and FEMA/R3. For specific information regarding Customs and Border Patrol’s activities, we will respectfully defer to CBP,” said police spokesperson Sekou Kinebrew.

The request for federal help during the height of protests over racism in police work was “pretty shocking,” said Paul Hetznecker, a criminal defense attorney who is among a group representing protesters.

He said Philadelphia’s police department had learned lessons from litigation around the 2004 RNC and Occupy Movements, and over time got better at supporting protesters’ First Amendment rights rather than challenging them, but recent actions show a reversal.

“It threatens our democracy… Once the mayor cedes power to the federal government to come in and deal with a domestic social justice movement, then you’ve essentially created a police state,” said Hetznecker. The federal government has a history of treating social movements as terrorist organizations and surveilling them, he continued.

Mayor Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw both came under fire for their handling of protests about the killing of George Floyd. After the use of teargas in Center City and West Philadelphia gained national attention, they apologized. Managing Director Brian Abernathy, who was part of those decisions, is stepping down.

Earlier this week, a few dozen protesters marched through Rittenhouse Square, decrying Trump’s plan to send federal officers to cities with Democratic mayors that have not requested assistance.

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