It's been more than one hundred days since Portlanders first asked Mayor Ted Wheeler to stop his police officers from coating crowds of protesters in CS gas—a commonly used tear gas. Now, after hundreds of Portlanders have experienced the debilitating effects of the eye-watering gas, Wheeler's following through.
"It’s time for everyone to reduce the violence in our community. We all want change. We all have the opportunity and obligation to create change," said Wheeler in a Thursday press release. "That’s why, as Police Commissioner, effective immediately and until further notice, I am directing the Portland Police to end the use of CS gas for crowd control."
This change of heart comes more than three months after several protesters and the nonprofit Don't Shoot PDX filed a federal lawsuit against the city for its officers' "indiscriminate use" of tear gas on members of the public. The lawsuit accused police of violating the constitution by penalizing hundreds of non-violent protesters for the criminal actions of just a few individuals in a crowd.
A day after that June 5 lawsuit was filed, Wheeler announced that he would order police to only use tear gas "if there is a serious and immediate threat to life safety, and there is no other viable alternative for dispersal." That policy did little to actually limit Portland Police Bureau (PPB's) reliance on tear gas, due to the the city's broad and hazy definition of "threat to life safety."
Receipts obtained by the Mercury shows the city spent some $11,000 to restock its tear gas inventory in early June.
PPB did momentarily stop using tear gas for several weeks in July—but only because federal police had temporarily stepped in with their own tear gas supply. It's during this time frame that Wheeler himself was doused in CS gas in front of the Mark Hatfield Federal Courthouse. Wheeler condemned the use of gas by federal officers, but not by his own police.
PPB leaders have defended the indiscriminate use of tear gas, arguing that it's the safest way to stop criminal acts taking place in a large crowd. At a July press conference, PPB Deputy Chief Chris Davis said it's too dangerous for police to enter a crowd to arrest a person for committing a crime.
"We’d like to do that, but it’s extremely challenging because of the tactics that are used [by protesters]," Davis said at the time. "It really is difficult to [arrest individual people] without significant use of force and significant injury to everyone involved."
It appears Wheeler's using the new ban as a kind of olive branch to protesters who continue to attend nightly demonstrations.
"Arson, vandalism, and violence are not going to drive change in this community," Wheeler said. "I expect the police to arrest people who engage in criminal acts.... We must stand together as a community against violence and for progress. I call on everyone to step up and tamp down the violence."
The mayor's commitment follows mounting public criticism around his response to the recent protests. On August 30, a group of local civil rights organizations called for Wheeler's resignation after a protester was fatally shot by another demonstrator during a Trump rally downtown. And earlier this week, new polling numbers revealed that 63 percent of Portlanders have an "unfavorable" opinion of Wheeler, who is running for re-election in November.
Attorney Juan Chavez, who is representing Don't Shoot PDX and other protesters in the federal lawsuit, said Wheeler's decision comes woefully late.
"It’s never too late to right a wrong, but frankly, how many lungs have been damaged because of four months of tear gassing?" Chavez told the Mercury. "How many lives will be shortened because of this? Where was this leadership months ago when it mattered most? There’s not half measures in terms of saving human lives."
Chavez says the "real test" to Wheeler's commitment will be seeing if the city will compensate people who've been negatively impacted by the gas.
Limited research on CS gas has found it to spur miscarriages, lead to irregular menstruation, and exacerbate respiratory issues. It's not just human health that's at risk: The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services are currently researching the potential harms of chronic tear gas use on the environment.
Wheeler's new policy doesn't restrict PPB officers from using other forms of tear gas, like pepper spray (OC gas) and mace (CN gas), which have both been frequently deployed on protesters. It also wouldn't limit federal police or state officers from using tear gas on demonstrators.
More importantly, the decision does not exempt the city from the accusations posed in the federal lawsuit. While the case is still winding its way through the court system, Chavez says he expects it to go to trial.
"There’s a principle in the law that you’re not supposed to use the fact that someone saw the light and changed their practice against them," he said. "But it doesn’t mean you can’t hold them accountable for what they did or didn’t do."