'We should all be scared': City Attorney Zach Klein on the potential of a federal surge in Columbus

Andy Downing
Police deployed tear gas to disperse protesters near the Statehouse on May 30.

In addition to the federal government ramping up its crackdown on anti-racism protests in Portland, Oregon, President Donald Trumplast week announced a “surge” of hundreds of law enforcement officers into Democratic cities, including Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

Trump has also cited New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, as potential future surge sites, noting the mayors of these cities were “liberal Democrats.” 

“My administration will be working to remove dangerous offenders sprung loose by these deadly policies and, frankly, by these deadly politicians,” he said. “America must be a sanctuary for law-abiding citizens, not criminal aliens. My vision for America’s cities could not be more different from the lawlessness being pushed by the extreme radical left.”

Meanwhile, officials in Cleveland have tried to quell public concern about the federal agents that were deployed to the city under the Operation Legend banner, saying that the officers are part of an earlier announced Justice Department initiative and not a Portland-style surge.

While Trump has, to this point, made no mention of any surge in Columbus, that doesn’t mean that the potential of one hasn’t been discussed by local officials, including those within the office of Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein. 

“I’ve been talking with our legal team, gathering our thoughts about what it would mean for the city,” Klein said. (Alive made a similar interview request of Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, whose office has more far-reaching powers to confront a potential influx of federal officers; we will run an interview if and when his office responds.)

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During the late July phone interview, Klein discussed the limited powers his office might have to confront federal law enforcement officers, his views on the legality of Trump’s policy and why Americans should be troubled by the administration's increasingly authoritarian law and order push. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your initial reaction to Trump’s deployment of federal officers within U.S. cities?

Obviously I’m very troubled by the things we’re seeing, and we certainly don’t want it to happen in the City of Columbus. But at this point my biggest concern is that what Trump’s doing is political, and it’s a campaign tactic to support his reelection. What’s frightening for every single American is that you can look at the way Trump is exercising his illegal, unlawful and unconstitutional authority, and that's the way you know he wants to rule if he is reelected. He spent the last four years leading us up to this point, where it’s all about his control and being an authoritarian decision maker. He’s never really demonstrated any real interest in governing us, because governing means working with folks who disagree with you, or who don’t look like you, and finding compromise. When you see what’s happening in Portland, Oregon, where they're sending these stormtroopers into a large, American city, I don’t think it’s anything but unconstitutional. I have yet to see any legal basis for how these federal troopers, or national police, are acting, because we don’t have national police in this country.

I think it’s important to note there are instances where local, state and federal law enforcement offices do work together, on drug cases, for example, but not federal personnel who are dressed head to toe in camouflage, who can’t be identified, where no one has any idea who they are or what authority under which they are acting, or under what authority they’re able to arrest people, or effectuate arrest, or seize people. … I would hope that any local law enforcement officer across the country who witnessed one of these snatch and grabs, they would be compelled to stop it and try to get to the bottom of who these people are and under what authority they’re acting. And if a crime has been committed by these snatch and grabbers, they need to be held accountable.

What is your understanding of the legality of these deployments?

I honestly have no idea, and I’ve yet to see any explanation from the federal government of the authority they’re using to come in and enforce local and state laws. This is at the heart of federalism and what it means to have a government that maintains national common interests but allows state and city governments to manage these local police powers on their own. And, yes, there are federal crimes where federal authorities are allowed to effectuate arrests and hold people accountable. It’s like how we just worked through this thing with [Ohio House Speaker Larry] Householder, who has been alleged to have violated federal law, so he’s been held accountable by the U.S. Attorney's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But to see some of these snatch and grabs, where these unidentified folks are taking people and putting them in unmarked cars. Did they commit a federal crime? These are very serious questions.

Can you envision a scenario where you would prosecute federal law enforcement officials?

I don’t know, mainly because I prosecute misdemeanors, and most of what we’re seeing, if it’s deemed illegal, would be felonious, mainly because it’s people being kidnapped. But if there was a situation in which there was an instance of assault, and it didn’t rise above a misdemeanor level of violence, then yes. If a law has been broken, no one is above the law, whether it’s a federal stormtrooper or just a civilian. … Someone is not immune from prosecution just because they work with the federal government.

Do you have concerns that these deployments could further erode public trust in law enforcement?

Of course. If you look at the underlying reason for recent protests, it’s because they believe there has been a lack of accountability in holding law enforcement officers accountable, and which has been historically absent. And so when you have a group come in that has been deputized by the President of the United States and they start kidnapping people, or beating people, and they’re acting absent any sort of authority, that can significantly undermine any progress we’re trying to make in [developing] a transparent, accountable relationship between law enforcement and the public.

At the same time, the city is being sued because of how the Columbus police treated citizens during the protests here. Aren’t federal officers just mirroring behaviors and tactics we’ve become accustomed to seeing here?

Well, I don’t think so. I think that if an officer is alleged to have performed illegal acts during the protests, we as a city will hold them accountable. At the same time, protesters who performed illegal acts will also be held accountable. I don’t think that, again, just because you’re federal personnel acting under guidelines of the president, that it somehow makes you immune from accountability. 

You mentioned people being held accountable if they performed illegal acts during the protests, which I’m guessing includes some of those acts of vandalism. Does the federal government have a right to step in if it believes locals have lost control of the situation?

No. Outside of protecting purely federal property, I don’t see any basis for why any federal-type law enforcement figures, whoever they might be, would be roaming the streets trying to enforce local and state laws. We don’t have a national police department, period. But that’s the way this group is acting, with the blessing of a president who is seeking to have more and more control over us. This is what you see from authoritarian governments. This is what Russia does, where the secret police show up and arrest people for unknown crimes. This is not the way the American system of government is set up, and it’s not how we act. As troubling as the Trump presidency has been the last four years, this is the pinnacle of abuse of power. We should all be scared.

Correction: An earlier version of this feature said federal law enforcement officers had not been deployed in Ohio. It has been updated to include the existence of Operation Legend in Cleveland.