Federal Agents Are on Standby for Possible Election Day Unrest

Law enforcement at the city, state, and national level is preparing for potential "civil disturbances" in what has already been an intense election cycle.
October 27, 2020, 7:44pm
The National Guard protect the perimeter of government buildings in Kenosha, Wis. on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. People gathered for the fifth night to protest the Sunday police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are preparing for potential unrest around Election Day, if anyone was looking for further confirmation that November is going to be particularly grim.

On the federal level, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are reportedly on “standby” ahead of the election, while Customs and Border Protection (CBP) personnel are being trained in case they’re asked to augment local law enforcement, according to CNN.

An anonymous official with CBP told the news outlet that training is focused on “de-escalation tactics, constitutional rights, and crowd control.” These latest preparations are in line with what federal agents did over the summer when they were sent to Portland during protests over the police killings of Black people, CNN reported.

The Texas Army National Guard, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to send as many as 1,000 troops to cities including Houston and Dallas for “post-election” support, according to the San Antonio Express-News. And in Washington State, hundreds of National Guard troops are being trained to handle “civil disturbances,” according to the Seattle Times, in what a Washington Military Department spokeswoman described as “merely a move to prepare because it’s the responsible thing to do.” D.C. police have purchased more than $100,000 worth of tear gas and other “less-lethal” munitions in anticipation of possible “election unrest,” according to WUSA9, a local CBS affiliate.

On the local level, police departments in some big cities are preparing to deal with protests and voter intimidation, while struggling to avoid the perception that they are taking part in voter suppression. The presence of police is particularly delicate after a summer rocked by anti-racism protests in which police sometimes became violent with protesters.

In the past, some law enforcement agencies have ramped up their presence ahead of major elections—New York City carried out its then-largest-ever Election Day police deployment in 2016. Protests broke out in cities including Portland and Minneapolis after Trump won that year.

But there’s reason to believe that the 2020 presidential election could be more intense.

“It’s fair to say the police are preparing in ways they never would have had to for Election Day,” Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit focused on law enforcement research and policy, recently told TIME. 

Some experts anticipate that swing states like Wisconsin will be at greater risk of activity and violence from self-styled militia groups—many of them right-wing and armed—in the post-election period.

President Donald Trump has not committed to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses to former Vice President Joe Biden, and for months has tried to discredit the legitimacy of the voting process with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. His campaign has gone as far as to rally supporters to watch polling sites on Election Day. 

The president’s rhetoric around possible election unrest has also been openly confrontational,adding fuel to an already-tense election cycle, in which it could take weeks to tally official results. 

In an interview with Fox News in September, Trump appeared to suggest the feds would step in if people rioted following the election, adding “we’ll put them down very quickly.”