The District of Columbia National Guard is investigating the actions of its helicopters Monday night that were observed doing slow, low-level passes and hovering over crowds in an apparent attempt to disperse those who were out past the city’s curfew, protesting over the death of George Floyd.
The DC National Guard first announced the investigation on Tuesday, saying in a statement provided to CNN that its commanding general, Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, “directed an investigation into a June 1 low-flying maneuver conducted by one of our rotary aviation assets.”
In a longer statement Wednesday, the Guard said that it is investigating the use of a “medical evacuation helicopter as part of the Joint Task Force DC operation.”
The investigation is to ensure all the helicopters involved Monday “complied with applicable procedures and safety regulations,” the Guard said.
“I hold all members of the District of Columbia National Guard to the highest of standards. We live and work in the District, and we are dedicated to the service of our nation,” Walker said in a statement.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he has directed the Secretary of the Army, Ryan McCarthy, to conduct an “inquiry to determine what happened and why and report back to me.”
“I want to make sure I understand why, what happened, who was involved, what orders were they given or not given, was there a safety issue involved with the aircraft hovering that low? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Esper told reporters during a Pentagon press conference. “I spoke to Secretary McCarthy last night about it. He’s digging into it, and we’ll get the facts and go back from there.”
Esper said he ordered the investigation “within an hour or so” after learning Tuesday afternoon that it was a Guard helicopter that hovered low over a DC city block.
On Monday, crowds protested outside the White House over the death of Floyd at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. As the city curfew was about to go into effect at 7 p.m. ET., law enforcement began pushing back the crowd using tear gas, smoke canisters and rubber bullets. Esper said Wednesday that the National Guard did not fire tear gas or rubber bullets.
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, using its propellers to kick up strong wind and debris.
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.
Some social media posts showed the Red Cross symbol displayed on the side of one UH-72 Lakota helicopter.
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.
Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell told CNN on Tuesday that “UH-72 aircraft were flying last night to provide observation of DC National Guard positions as they conducted civil unrest operations.”
“They were not dispatched as part of any law enforcement operation,” Mitchell added.
Esper acknowledged Wednesday that there were “conflicting reports.” He said he received a report back that the Guard was asked by law enforcement to look at “a National Guard check point to see if there were protesters around.”
“I think when you’re landing that low in the city, it looks unsafe to me, right? But I need to find out, I need to learn more about what’s going on,” he said.
Asked if he thought it was inappropriate that a medevac helicopter was used, Esper said, “I’m not going to comment, because I have asked that an inquiry be made.”
He added that it was his understanding that the helicopter was not a medevac mission.
The Guard said its statement to CNN Tuesday that its “highest priority is the safety of our Citizen Soldiers and Airmen who support civil authorities as they perform their duties.”
“This is our home, and we are dedicated to the safety and security of our fellow citizens of the District and their right to safely and peacefully protest,” it added.
CNN’s Michael Conte, Ryan Browne, Michael Callahan, Austen Bundy and Nikki Carvajal contributed to this report.