The Pentagon’s watchdog found that the DC National Guard’s use of low-flying helicopters in response to protests in DC on June 1, 2020, over the death of George Floyd was “reasonable,” but the mission was mired in confusion.
The report from the Department of Defense’s Inspector General, released Thursday, concluded the deployment of helicopters was justifiable based on the needs of the emergency, as well as the direction from President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper to “flood the zone” and “use everything available” to protect “federal property and symbols.”
One year after a UH-72 MEDEVAC helicopter descended to less than 100 feet above the crowd gathered in the wake of Floyd’s death, the report didn’t place the blame on any specific individual, nor did it recommend disciplinary measures against the pilots, the head of the Joint Task Force on Civil Disturbance Brigadier General Robert Ryan, or Maj. Gen. William Walker, who commanded the DC National Guard at the time.
But the report does point to an atmosphere of confusion over the use of helicopters to respond to protests or civil disturbances.
“No specific training, policies, or procedures were in place for using helicopters to support requests for assistance from civilian authorities in civil disturbances,” the report’s authors wrote. “Prior to the night of June 1st, 2020, the DC [National Guard] did not have a prepared plan to maintain command and control of aviation assets used to support civil disturbances.”
A lack of clear guidance on the helicopters’ mission compounded the confusion, because Ryan “did not provide clear and consistent direction and mission guidance” and “did not provide his clear and consistent commander’s intent to include key tasks and parameters for the operation.”
Five helicopters were launched by the DC National Guard on the evening of June 1, as protests over Floyd’s death continued past the imposed 7 p.m. curfew.
Well after the curfew, protesters were still out on the streets, and video captured by CNN showed a military helicopter hovering over a group of them, kicking up strong wind and debris with its downwash. The tactic is a show of force and commonly used by the military in overseas combat zones to drive away targets from a specific area.
Residents also reported buildings vibrating from the helicopters being so close, and there were reports of some windows broken by the choppers as the wind they kicked up tossed debris from the streets.
The Defense Department Inspector General largely agreed with an earlier report from an Army investigation that found the use of helicopters was not against federal laws or policies, though there was a “lack of understanding” about their mission.
But the new report contradicted the Army investigation’s finding that MEDEVAC helicopters were used against regulations and that the helicopters were used without approval from the chain of command.