Jahn Teetsov

More than a dozen activists headed downtown last January, protesting what they said was brutality by the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) during Donald Trump’s recent inauguration and calling for then-Police Chief Mike Marshman to get canned. 

“I think it’s an important issue that’s absolutely worth standing up for,” said one woman who was arrested that day. She and a few others were standing in front of a TriMet bus when a squad of cops dressed in riot gear sprinted toward them from behind. Video footage shows that as the woman slowly walked away, one officer grabbed her arms from behind and slammed her, face-first, to the ground.

Three months earlier, activist and police critic Jessie Sponberg was one of many protesters at City Hall raising hell about a new police union contract signed under then-Mayor Charlie Hales. Officers pepper-sprayed Spongberg, who was yelling at the cops and filming the chaos. Then one officer shoved Sponberg down a small flight of stairs. 

“The cops knew who I was and that I had a press pass,” he says about the October 2016 incident.

In both instances, officers were cleared of wrongdoing by their supervisors, who found the use of force was allowed under bureau policy. But both incidents—along with others—are referenced in a scathing new report that calls into question whether Portland cops are being trained to properly defuse tense situations.

Years after the US Department of Justice (DOJ) found the bureau had systemic problems with de-escalation and use of force, the PPB still faces the same issues, according to a just-released assessment from a group of Chicago academics tracking Portland’s progress.

“We carry substantial concerns regarding the PPB’s training and implementation of non-force and verbal techniques,” reads the report from the so-called Compliance Officer and Community Liaison (COCL) team being paid to monitor the city’s settlement with the DOJ. “There appears to be large-scale confusion regarding the intent of de-escalation within the Bureau and the confusion has yet to be adequately rectified through training and the evaluation of force events.” 

In the January incident near the TriMet bus, the involved officer said he violently threw the woman to the ground because he did not want her “to be able to attack or interfere with other officers around that were making arrests.”

The COCL report notes “the chain of command review finds the officer to be within policy, though the video and officers reports do not appear to support this finding.”

“Although there is a governmental interest in clearing the streets, that interest and the actions taken against the community member do not appear balanced” with the low-level crimes she was arrested on, the report concludes.

The woman, who didn’t want to be named for fear of backlash from cops and employers, tells the Mercury she has no clue why she was deemed a physical threat to the officer: “To me, that just sounds like some ridiculous pretense they’re trying to create.” 

Though he’s not specifically named, the COCL finds that Sponberg was not a threat and didn’t “impede law enforcement function,” when he was thrown from the steps of City Hall. Instead, he was “expressing extreme verbal discontent” while filming the scene, COCL leader Dennis Rosenbaum writes. Yet the PPB decided cops were justified in pepper-spraying and shoving him.

“We believe the force was unreasonable,” the report says, contradicting the PPB’s account. “The strength of the push does not appear to correlate with the officer’s stated objective” and violates bureau policy.

“I’m glad that an independent review came to the exact same conclusion that I did as I was lying on my back,” Sponberg tells the Mercury. “God damn that was excessive.” 

The COCL report also documents multiple incidents in which officers “accidentally” used TASERs on people. A PPB supervisor wrote in one of the cases that three such accidental deployments “were within policy and consistent with DOJ Settlement Agreement and best practices.”

The COCL’s response: “We don’t believe either of these statements are true.”

The report also documents an incident where an officer yelled, “You need to [expletive] stop or you may be shot” and “If you don’t stop, you’re going to get [expletive] hurt.” The officer and their supervisor found, wrongly according to Rosenbaum, that this was an example of appropriate de-escalation. 

The COCL says the issue comes down to how Portland cops are instructed. During training sessions the group observed last month, they found instructors “undercutting” the policies they were there to teach: One instructor “emphasized that de-escalation should be used ‘when time and circumstances reasonably permit,’ underscoring the notion that this is not a required set of behaviors,” the report says, noting that other agencies devote entire days to de-escalation tactics. “The COCL has found it to be an uphill battle to get the PPB to treat these issues as important.” 

It’s been hard to get a response to the COCL’s damning findings. PPB spokesperson Sergeant Chris Burley referred the Mercury’s request for comment to Captain Bob Day, head of the bureau’s training division. Day didn’t respond to our inquiry. Neither did Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office. Rosenbaum, who wrote the report, said he couldn’t discuss the details, but will be taking comments during a public meeting in Portland on Monday. 

The details in the COCL’s report all stem from the tenure of former Chief Mike Marshman and Acting/Interim Chief Chris Uehara (who took over temporarily after Marshman retired in August). 

Chief Danielle Outlaw was sworn in earlier this month after leaving her post with the Oakland Police Department. Time will tell if the PPB under Outlaw fares any better in the eyes of those tasked with keeping the bureau in line with the federally mandated settlement agreement.