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GAO Directs U.S. Federal Law Enforcement to Improve Reporting on Less-Lethal Force

Eight of 10 U.S. federal law enforcement agencies used less-lethal force during protests in 2020 but the requirements for reporting incidents were “varied and reports often did not include basic information,” according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) review.

The GAO released Federal Agencies Should Improve Reporting and Review of Less-Lethal Force earlier this week. Less-lethal force refers to tactics and weapons that are unlikely to cause death or serious injury to a target.

The 10 agencies in the report included the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ); Customs and Border Protection (CBP); Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the U.S. Secret Service (USSS); the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosive (ATF); and the Federal Protective Service (FPS). Personnel from these agencies and others were deployed to both Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., in response to 2020 protests and civil unrest that arose in response to George Floyd’s murder.

According to the report, the DHS did not have a policy mandating adequate and comprehensive reporting of less-lethal force incidents, impacting its oversight into incidents and the agency’s ability to learn from them. Also, while the DHS’s overall policy on the use of force stipulated reporting and tracking, it does not provide standards for the reports.

While the GAO found that DHS is learning from the lessons of 2020, such as by updating its use-of-force policies and training methods, it had not created an oversight organization for monitoring reports of such incidents.

The report also provided DHS with five recommendations, including the need for better standards in reporting less-lethal force events and an oversight group to monitor reporting.

Other determinations included that “USMS, ICE, and USSS did not document if force was used in accordance with policy,” GAO wrote. Meanwhile, FPS reported five use of force incidents in Washington, D.C., and 82 in Portland; CBP had 544 incidents in Portland.

GAO made recommendations for ICE and USSS to better document determinations that use of force incidents were in accordance with agency policy.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, DHS, and DOJ agreed with all of the recommendations aimed at their respective departments, according to the GAO.

The call for an independent review into crowd control tactics used by the agencies came in June 2021 from U.S. legislators, including U.S. House Homeland Security Committee Chair Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS).

Thompson said it was unfortunate that DHS's use of force policy was not consistently enforced or adequately reported in 2020. 

"However, I am pleased that the Biden Administration has already made concerted efforts to correct this wrong, especially with the creation of its new Law Enforcement Coordination Council this year," Thompson said in a statement sent to Security Management. "I encourage DHS to quickly implement GAO’s recommendations and looking forward to working with it and its components to ensure use of force policies are consistent and followed, and incidents are properly reviewed and reported.”