The Trump administration has launched a sweeping campaign to review all available footage of recent public unrest with an eye toward criminally charging any identifiable law-breakers, Trump's Attorney General Bill Barr said Tuesday on a visit to the scene of the killing of two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Under the program, federal and local officials will be checking all the footage they can obtain, Barr said.
Barr described the program as vast, involving “all” the cities that have experienced unrest since Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and racial injustice erupted earlier this year.
“In all of these cities, there are task forces of federal and state officers reviewing all the video that we can get our hands on,” Barr said Tuesday afternoon during the Kenosha event with President Trump. Trump met with business owners and law enforcement but not with the family of Jacob Blake, who was paralyzed after being shot seven times in the back by a police officer, sparking days of unrest.
“When we are able to identify people that committed crimes in these riots, going all the way back to the beginning, whether they’re burning police cars or throwing rocks at people, which are deadly, they will be prosecuted,” Barr said. “That’s a large-scale effort, and it’s going to continue.”
The sweeping review comes as Trump seeks to cast himself as the “law and order” candidate in the 2020 presidential election. Trump and his campaign are warning Americans that the scenes of violence that began under his presidency will worsen and engulf the suburbs if he’s forced to leave office.
Barr didn’t specify the precise name of the task forces involved. But he appeared to be referring to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, or JTTFs, a network of 56 multi-agency law enforcement operations that combine local and federal officers. Barr announced in May that the JTTFs would be tasked with apprehending and charging “radical agitators who have hijacked peaceful protest.”
The Washington Post reported in June citing unnamed sources that officials in the JTTFs have been assigned to gather video and photo evidence of possible lawbreakers, although the Post didn’t specify the scale of the program. One official told the Post that legal limits around national security intelligence authorities still apply, and that existing rules for surveilling Americans weren’t changed.
The review of footage has already led to arrests in multiple cities as the Trump administration has led a crackdown on violent demonstrators involving tough criminal charges on those caught up in the dragnet, including for tearing down statues.
And at least some officers have scoured social media to help identify suspects.
In Trenton, New Jersey, federal prosecutors announced charges in June against a local 27-year-old man for allegedly attempting to light a police car on fire. Officials said they identified the suspect by watching a video of the incident posted by another bystander, and then matching articles of clothing worn by the defendant in other pictures on his own social media.
The Department of Justice didn’t immediately return a request for comment about the program.
A spokesperson for the FBI declined to comment directly on Barr’s comments.
But in response to questions about the program, the bureau forwarded a statement from FBI’s Milwaukee division: “FBI Milwaukee is supporting our state and local law enforcement partners with maintaining public safety in our community. The FBI is providing both personnel and resources in this effort. Our focus is on identifying, investigating, and disrupting individuals that are inciting violence and engaging in criminal activity. We are not focused on peaceful protests.”
Cover: Demonstrators raise their fists during a City Hall rally organized by No More Names LA , Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in Los Angeles to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisc. (Kirby Lee via AP)