WASHINGTON — Department of Homeland Security acting secretary Chad Wolf on Thursday defended his handling of the protests in Portland, Ore., and bristled at criticism from his predecessors, telling a Senate panel that former DHS secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff were ‘‘dead wrong’’ when they raised concerns that the Trump administration’s response had gone too far.
Appearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Wolf said DHS officers and agents were deployed to Portland to protect federal buildings from destructive attacks and claimed they did not interfere with peaceful protests. He faulted city and state officials as cutting off cooperation with the Trump administration, including a Portland City Council resolution that directed local police to sever ties with federal authorities.
‘‘DHS law enforcement officers received almost no assistance from state and local law enforcement in Portland,’’ he said. ‘‘They were left to defend the courthouse besieged by attempts of arson and constant destruction. This circumstance should never have happened.’’
After images circulated last month of federal agents in camouflage uniforms using unmarked vehicles to detain protesters, both Ridge and Chertoff — who served under George W. Bush as the country’s first DHS secretaries — expressed concern that the actions could hurt the department’s reputation.
Wolf said he has spoken to both men since then. ‘‘At the end of conversation, they thanked me and said they did not know all the facts,’’ Wolf told the panel.
President Trump seized on the unrest in the city last month to blast Democrats and to campaign as a law-and-order candidate defending the country against the ‘‘anarchy’’ he said would take hold if his rival, Joe Biden, won in November.
Wolf avoided placing blame on any one side or party, even when GOP senators appeared eager to make Democrats responsible for the unrest and to tie the Portland protests to rising crime in other cities.
The acting secretary told the panel that DHS personnel suffered 277 injuries between July 4 and July 31, including several agents who might have permanent damage to their eyes from laser pointers that protesters wielded. In addition, Wolf said, 142 officers ‘‘have reported receiving minor burns, lacerations, being hit over the head with a sledgehammer, or hearing issues resulting from the fireworks.’’
An agreement last week between the Trump administration and Oregon Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, to replace most of the federal forces with state policy has shifted the protests away from the downtown federal courthouse. But Wolf said the city continues to see violent incidents targeting local police, and the full contingent of DHS personnel will remain on standby in the city.
Republican members of the Senate panel were generally sympathetic in their questions to Wolf, but he was pressed by some of the Democrats, including Senator Kamala Harris of California, who asked the DHS chief about the effects of chemical irritants, which federal forces used liberally to disperse the crowds.
‘‘There are mothers, including pregnant women, who attend these protests. I would advise you, sir, to consult with medical experts to determine the impact of chemical irritants on pregnant women,’’ Harris said, raising her voice as Wolf acknowledged he had not done so.
In another exchange, Senator Jacky Rosen, Democrat of Nevada, asked Wolf about the administration’s plans to attempt to once more terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, after the US Supreme Court ruled the administration’s first try was unlawful.
Legal scholars have said the decision requires DHS to accept new applicants for the program, but Wolf challenged that interpretation.
‘‘In no way did the Supreme Court decision tell the department to process new DACA applicants,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll continue to process and renew applicants as we’ve done over the past three years,’’ he added. But he said the administration has ‘‘serious concerns’’ about the legality of the Obama-era program.
Body cameras show man saying ‘I can’t breathe’
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Body camera videos from a North Carolina jail show a man, who died days after his arrest, struggling with guards to get up from where he lay on the floor, calling out for his mother and yelling “I can’t breathe!” more than 20 times as they restrained him.
The videos released Wednesday show the moments in December when John Neville, 56, was told by a nurse in the Forsyth County jail in Winston-Salem that he had a seizure. Neville died at a hospital of a brain injury Dec. 4, three days after his arrest on a warrant accusing him of assaulting a woman.
Five former jail officers and a nurse were charged in July with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death.
DC police officer charged with civil rights violations
WASHINGTON — A District of Columbia officer who has worked for the police department for more than three decades has been charged with violating the civil rights of two people in separate July 2018 incidents involving illegal chokeholds, according to court filings.
Officer Mark Clark was named in a five-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury this week in US District Court in Washington.
Both incidents occurred in the same week and ‘‘resulted in bodily injury,’’ according to the indictment.
Clark could not immediately be reached for comment, and court filings did not list an attorney for him. A spokesperson for the office of acting US Attorney Michael Sherwin declined to comment.
Clark joined the police force on July 17, 1989, according to city records. He has been suspended from duty on noncontact status, police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said.
Clark on July 13, 2018, ‘‘assaulted D.T. and used a prohibited trachea hold without legal justification,’’ using his arm and hand against the victim’s windpipe and throat, the indictment said.
Five days later, on July 18, 2018, Clark ‘‘assaulted K.C. and used a prohibited trachea hold and a prohibited carotid artery hold without legal justification,’’ court filings said. He used his arm and hand against the victim’s windpipe and throat, as well as carotid artery and jugular vein, the indictment said.
The indictment did not offer further identifying information for those involved.
The indictment states that Clark deprived both victims of their constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment to be free from unreasonable seizure, including excessive use of force.
The D.C. Council barred trachea holds by officers and restricted the use of carotid artery holds in 1986. D.C. police policy has prohibited the use of all neck restraints since 2017.
According to an annual report, the Office of Police Complaints has reported two or three chokehold complaints per year since 2016 — about 10 out of roughly 600 complaints over four years.
Clark was charged under law that existed before the D.C. Council passed an emergency police bill last month that makes all chokeholds illegal and punishable by a maximum 10-year prison sentence, said a spokesman for council member Charles Allen, a Democrat and chairman of the public safety committee.