The police response to protests in Portland can make the city look like a war zone.
On January 20, Inauguration Day, gas mask-clad police officers in body armor tear-gassed and pepper sprayed nonviolent protesters, blasted painful pepper balls and beanbag rounds, set off pellet-spewing “stinger” grenades, and detonated panic-inducing “flash-bangs” because demonstrators wouldn’t move from downtown streets.
Many of these weapons aren’t new to Portland demonstrations, but police watchdogs and civil rights advocates argue that a wave of heavy-handed Portland Police Bureau (PPB) responses to protests started in the fall—at an October protest outside of City Hall, some say, or a smaller anti-prison labor protest a month earlier. It’s only ramped up, they say, through post-presidential election protests in November, the Inauguration Day protest, and a President’s Day demonstration last month. (Responses to those last two protests—both widely-criticized—were under the tenure of Mayor Ted Wheeler, who campaigned partly on a promise to “actively demilitarize the police force.”)
Between Donald Trump and more-local concerns, it’s safe to say large-scale protests have become the norm. Civil rights advocates hope that the PPB’s recent response to them isn’t.
A chorus of groups are backing major changes to the PPB’s policies on crowd control as the bureau solicits public feedback on them this month, urging the cops to cut back on “less-lethal” weapons.
“There are actual steps that can be taken that would make things safer for people,” says Nate Cohen, a former EMT who testified passionately in front of City Council last week on behalf of the group Empower Portland.
Common recommendations from Empower Portland and civil rights groups like the ACLU of Oregon, Oregon Lawyers for Good Government, and the Portland Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild include banning police use of stinger grenades, limiting pepper spray use, and requiring the mayor and police chief to approve when the cops want to set off teargas, among other things.
“We tried to balance the police’s responsibility of keeping the public safe,” including protesters and bystanders, says ACLU of Oregon Legal Director Mat dos Santos, of a set of policy recommendations from the ACLU and others that he plans to submit to the PPB this week. “There’s nothing in [the recommended policy changes] that prevents Portland police from really protecting themselves.... We are not in a situation where police are getting confronted by angry crowds with serious weapons.”
Here are some of the main concerns groups have raised:
(last protest used: January 20)
“There’s no way to control it once it’s deployed,” Cohen says. “Teargas completely traumatizes your respiratory system, and when you’re using it in a crowd-control situation you have no idea who you’re using it against. Someone with asthma—you’re going to kill somebody. It’s a chemical weapon.”
As of now, the police bureau’s crowd control incident commander, designated by the chief to lead protest policing, has the power to authorize teargas use. Empower Portland and the joint recommendations from the ACLU want the police chief and mayor to personally sign off before it’s used (they want the same with flash bangs), and say teargas should only be implemented as a last resort after several warnings.
“If the city is going to use chemical weapons on the public, the decision needs to involve the highest officials,” says dos Santos, who tells the Mercury that city and police officials couldn’t articulate to him why incident commanders approved teargas on January 20.
Cohen also wants to ban teargas launchers completely: “If you’re going to teargas people, at least have the decency to roll it.”
While testifying before City Council, Cohen raised concerns about officers using powerful “Sabre Red” pepper spray, an ultra potent brand.
Patrol officers do carry Sabre Red, PPB spokesperson Sgt. Pete Simpson says, but its not used for crowd-control operations.
Still, the ACLU wants to prevent police officers from aiming pepper spray into groups of people, as they did on January 20. It should only be used, they say, on specific people “engaged in seriously unlawful conduct” or on those “actively resisting arrest.”
(last protest used: January 20)
The ACLU and Empower Portland say they don’t want stinger grenades used on crowds because, simply put, they’re grenades. An officer pulls the pin and tosses a small black ball, which then explodes and expels rubber pellets (sometimes coated in chemicals) for up to 50 feet in every direction. A number of stinger grenades were used on January 20.
A stinger grenade is a “pain compliance, distraction, and disorientation device for crowd management, and it may be hand-thrown or launched in the general direction of the crowd,” according to a law-enforcement supply store that sells stingers. The site also warns that improper use can lead to death. “Psychologically and physiologically maximize less-lethal force against the most stubborn of crowds,” it says.
“It’s a grenade,” Cohen says. “It’s not a fake grenade, it’s not a smoke grenade—it’s a grenade. It blows up.”
Other “impact projectiles”
(last protest used: February 20)
Portland police officers have recently shot beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, and eye-stinging “pepper balls” at protesters.
Rubber bullets—bulbous, blunt projectiles—should be banned completely, Cohen says. The ACLU wants to prevent officers from shooting any of these at groups of people, which the bureau did on January 20.
Whether or not the recommendations will be taken seriously remains to be seen. The PPB is taking public comment on its crowd control directives through the end of the month. Dos Santos has met twice with city officials who he said appear, in the wake of the highly criticized police response to the February 20 protest, open to changing the policy. Cohen met with staffers from Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office last week.
“I think the city understands they have a problem with the policy as it stands,” dos Santos said. “I think we’re all pleased we finally have their ear on this.”