Washington — The Justice Department is ramping up its law enforcement presence amid nationwide protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has sparked violent clashes between police and demonstrators in major American cities.
A senior Justice Department official said Attorney General William Barr had directed the Bureau of Prisons to send riot teams to Miami, where the team was over the weekend, and Washington, D.C., where hundreds of protesters gathered at the White House for demonstrations that escalated as day turned to night.
In addition to deploying riot teams, known as special operation response teams, all FBI field offices have set up command posts.
Protests erupted across the country in the wake of Floyd's death last week, with tens of thousands taking to the streets over the last six days to oppose police brutality and the deaths of unarmed African Americans in police custody.
As tensions have continued to escalate, mayors in dozens of cities have imposed curfews on residents and the National Guard has been activated in 23 states and the District of Columbia.
The protests have been marred by clashes with law enforcement and destruction of businesses, vehicles and monuments. In the nation's capital late Sunday night as hundreds demonstrated outside the White House gates, a fire broke out in the basement of the historic St. John's Episcopal Church, located across the street from the White House. Firefighters put out the flames at the church, which held its first services in 1816.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser activated the National Guard in the district Sunday to assist with the response to protests outside the White House and implemented a 7 p.m. citywide curfew for Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of another night of demonstrations.
The senior Justice Department official said Barr deployed the FBI's hostage rescue team late Sunday night to help D.C. police and is working to maximize federal law enforcement's presence in the nation's capital Monday. U.S. Marshals and Drug Enforcement Agency agents were also dispatched to help the National Guard on Sunday in Lafayette Square across from the White House.
Barr said Saturday that the protests appear to be organized by "anarchic and left extremist groups," though he did not provide evidence showing a centralized effort by outside organizations to use the protests to incite violence. President Trump, too, has blamed leftist activists for the violence, without presenting evidence to support the claim.
The attorney general warned that it is a federal crime to cross state lines to participate in violent rioting and said participants found to have done so will be prosecuted.
In the case of the protests taking place from coast to coast, the senior official said FBI agents have already begun interviewing some suspects arrested by local police to determine whether any federal crimes have been committed.
Floyd died last week after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his left knee into his neck for more than eight minutes. In the last few minutes, Floyd was unresponsive, his family's attorney, Benjamin Crump, told "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
The officer who kneeled on Floyd's neck, identified as Derek Chauvin, was arrested and charged with second-degree manslaughter and third-degree murder last week. The other three officers who were involved in the incident were fired but have not been charged.