The federal government has broad power to enforce the laws of the United States, but not to police the streets or maintain order in a city if protests lead to violence.
That has been how the separation of powers between states and the federal government has been understood. The Constitution leaves the “so-called police power” in the hands of state and local officials. It is one of the “powers not delegated the United States” and instead is “reserved to the states,” as the 10th Amendment says.
This principle has been invoked often by the Supreme Court’s conservative justices. In 1995, they struck down a federal law that made it a crime to have a gun in a school zone because, as Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said, it threatened to convert federal authority into a “general police power of the sort retained by the states.”
But President Trump says he is willing and even anxious to break down the line separating federal authority from local policing. Federal agents clad in military gear clashed repeatedly with demonstrators outside the boarded-up federal courthouse in Portland, Ore. How’s that going?
Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Governor Kate Brown have called for withdrawal of the agents. Democratic members of Congress have introduced a bill to block the administration from “deploying federal forces as a shadowy paramilitary against Americans.” And mayors in other cities, including Chicago and New York, have vowed to fight any similar deployment in court.
Business owners in downtown Portland, epicenter of clashes between federal agents and protesters, have delayed reopening their shops and even considered closing them permanently since the Trump administration’s intervention worsened unrest in the city.
“The presence of federal troops has led to a near-universal upset and a worsening of conditions on the streets,” said Andrew Hoan, chief executive of Portland Business Alliance, the area’s chamber of commerce, which represents almost 1,900 businesses.
Trump’s vow to send federal agents into other cities to quell unrest and combat crime has raised questions about whether the move violates the Constitution. It has reignited a national debate on the militarization of policing. And it has added a new, disturbing twist: the use of unmarked vans in detaining protesters.