June 29 (UPI) -- Witnesses testified in Congressional hearings Monday about teargas and police use-of-force when law enforcement officers cleared out peaceful protesters at Lafayette Square in advance of President Donald Trump's photo opportunity June 1.
Officers in riot gear sprayed chemical gas and shoved protesters out of the area in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, witnesses testified to the House Natural Resources Committee. A second hearing took place in a special House committee chaired by Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., which examined nationwide police reaction to protests over the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Officers in the U.S. Park Police serve as part of a branch of the National Park Service.
Australian television journalist Amelia Brace testified that she and a cameraman were shoved with a riot shield. She said a park police officer grabbed a camera lens and struck her colleague in the neck with a rubber bullet.
"A Park Police officer, who was passing us, stopped, turned towards Tim and rammed him in the chest and stomach with the edge of his riot shield, causing Tim to keel over and drop down," Chase told the committee. She added that another officer hit her with a baton.
Two officers are on administrative leave, the Park Police said.
The President was photographed holding a Bible in front of the church after the protesters were cleared, which rankled church leaders who testified Monday.
"I felt it was a misuse of both the space and Bible," testified Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C. by videoconference. "I felt [Trump] was putting on a mantle of spiritual authority to justify those actions.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, testified that the clearing of the park was probably lawful, but said the committee would have to decide whether the means used exceeded the intent of the law.
Turley said the committee should examine "the rapid escalation of force, particularly in a protest involving police abuse allegations."
The committee's highest ranking Republican member, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, agreed that Park Police activity should be scrutinized, but said Democrats were carrying out "political theater."
The incident happened after the city had just seen a night of unrest and vandalism erupting from protests. Trump had been relocated to a bunker below the White House for his safety, the Secret Service said.
Shortly before Trump began his walk to the church, Park Police gave protesters three warnings to clear the area, the White House said. Officers then began to push them out of the way and deployed teargas and rubber bullets.
On his walk, Trump was flanked by officials including Gen. Mark Tilley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Mike Esper.
Tilley later apologized for his participation in the photo op at a virtual graduation ceremony for students at National Defense University, saying his appearance was "a mistake." A U.S. Pentagon science adviser also quit over the military participation in Trump's walk to the church.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump Administration, the National Park Service and U.S. Attorney General William Barr earlier in June, alleging the Park Police violated the rights of peaceful protesters with excessive force.