The National Guard Bureau has established a new unit made up mostly of military policemen that could be dispatched to help quell unrest in coming days, after a turbulent summer in which National Guard members were deployed to several cities.
The unit, which also could be used to respond to natural disasters and other missions, was formed in September and initially described as a rapid-reaction force. But as one of the most divisive elections in American history closes in, National Guard officials have softened how they characterise the service members, instead referring to them as “regional response units”.
A National Guard official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the new name more accurately details their mission. But the shift away from language used in war also hints at the complicated situation the National Guard could face, as President Donald Trump signals that he might not accept the results of the election if he loses.
National Guard members, who are organised within each state and territory and typically commanded by their governor, could be called upon to perform crowd control, safeguard landmarks or enforce curfews, based on roles they already have had this year. Some of them also could be deployed to the nation’s capital, if Trump decides to repeat his plan from June and amass a military force in Washington that teams with federal and local law enforcement.
The new response unit, with a total of about 600 members split between Alabama and Arizona, is not large enough to provide a response like the one Washington saw in June. First reported on by the Associated Press this month, it could provide an initial wave of extra support in states where there is unrest or be used in the nation’s capital, where the Trump administration has broader control because of the city’s status as a federal jurisdiction.
“As governors across the nation continue to request support to law enforcement, they frequently turn to the National Guard,” Wayne Hall, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, said in a statement. “A National Guard regional response unit was created to quickly provide additional military police to state or territory to augment their own responding units.”
The National Guard has long sought to portray itself as citizen soldiers who are also neighbours. But convincing people of that has not always been easy, especially as the National Guard’s involvement in responding to unrest has been thrust into the spotlight.
In Washington, the low-hanging flight of two DC National Guard helicopters in June in an apparent attempt to disperse protesters prompted an investigation that found that the aircraft did not have the authorisation they needed to be where they were, said two defence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
The officials said that the investigation found that Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Wingblade, who oversaw aviation for the District of Columbia National Guard, also did not get the special approval that would have been needed to use a medical helicopter, a Lakota emblazoned with a red and white cross, in a non-medical mission. The details were first reported on Friday by Defense One.
The results of the investigation have not been released because the Defense Department Inspector General’s office has taken up the case for a separate review. That examination still has not concluded, and is assessing the poor communication involved between National Guard officers that night and whether any more senior officers also should be found at fault, one of the defence officials said.
The flights came as National Guard members from several states were dispatched to Washington amid the unrest to perform crowd control functions. Alongside law enforcement, that eventually included the forced clearing of protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House, which prompted an outcry over the use of pepper spray, shields and clubs.
In Louisville, a Black restaurant owner, David McAtee, was killed in June as police and the National Guard sought to enforce a curfew during protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor. State officials said McAtee fired a handgun and was killed by a National Guard member’s rifle round. The McAtee family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in September, alleging that authorities used excessive force that included firing pepper balls – possibly indistinguishable from other ammunition – into McAtee’s restaurant.
National Guard soldiers where demonstrators assembled during protests about the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, in Louisville, 26 September, 2020
Other interactions between National Guard members and the public during the protests have been peaceful. National Guard members at one point laid down their shields at the request of protesters in Nashville and danced in the streets with demonstrators in Atlanta.
In a conference call with reporters this week, National Guard generals in four states detailed the duties their members have had in the run-up to the election, including preventing cyber intrusions and, in some cases, preparing to assist as unarmed poll workers in civilian clothing.
The officers said it is unlikely that the National Guard will be placed under federal control if there is turmoil after the election. If Guard members are dispatched, it will probably be by their own governor, they said.
“They determine how we are used in support of their efforts to address those kinds of situations,” said Air Force Major General Daryl Bohac, the adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard. “The bottom line here is we are not in charge.”
Bohac said senior National Guard officers have had planning discussions with police in Nebraska but nothing that is atypical.
Army Major General Jeff Holmes, the adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard, said the duties of Guard members in his state on Election Day will include an effort to “backfill” for traffic officers, allowing more police to be available if there is unrest.
National Guard members who are working as poll workers will not be tasked with responding to any violence, said Army Brigadier General Robyn Blader, the assistant adjutant general of the Wisconsin National Guard.
“If there is any civil unrest, it will go through the normal 911 channels,” she said.
Lindsay Cohn, a professor who studies civil-military relations at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, said that if there is unrest after Election Day, National Guard officials will probably be concerned about what governors ask them to do, especially if it involves crowd control or suppressing what appears to be political speech.
“The more political and more violent these things get, the less the Guard is going to want to have to do with them,” she said. “But the larger or more violent the situation is, the more likely the state is to need Guard support.”
The situation in Washington is even more fluid.
As in June, Trump can again request “sympathetic states” to furnish National Guard members to supplement any effort by the District of Columbia National Guard, which is under federal control, Cohn said.
“I would not be surprised to see something similar to this past summer play out, especially since DC is likely to be the focus of protests almost no matter what happens,” she said.