Nearly a year after Portland officers detained hundreds of protesters in downtown Portland under broad allegations of disorderly conduct, the city’s police review team has agreed with civil rights lawyers: The way Portland police handle protests might be unconstitutional. Or, in the careful words of city staffers, “could put the city at risk.”
In the Independent Police Review (IPR) analysis of the June 4, 2017 clash—in which the Vancouver-based alt-right group Patriot Prayer faced off with far-left members of Rose City Antifa, worker unions, and an interfaith religious organization—investigators found “little documentation” to justify officers’ detentions of more than 300 people after a protester chucked a soda bottle at police. They also found little justification for officers to have taken photos of every person they detained.
Even more alarming, IPR staff discovered that the police bureau doesn’t even have set guidelines regarding these kinds of mass detentions. According to IPR Director Constantin Severe, this kind of policy is the “nuts and bolts of policing.” While this was the IPR’s incendiary finding, investigators also listed a number of other mildly concerning (and possibly unconstitutional) tactics that Portland officers have been using to control large protests.
The IPR’s findings echo those raised by the civil rights lawyers who have filed cases against PPB for the way they treated protesters on June 4.
In response, the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) released a short memo agreeing to work on a number of these issues—like drafting a mass detention policy by July, and not taking pictures of people who aren’t under formal arrest. But without demonstrable changes, it’s hard to know if PPB officers have taken the IPR’s recommendations to heart.
Conveniently enough, Portlanders had an opportunity to gauge results for themselves last weekend, when Patriot Prayer and Rose City Antifa returned for a standoff in downtown Portland. There wasn’t a concrete purpose behind the two groups’ dueling June 3 rallies: Patriot Prayer showed up in Terry Schrunk Plaza to essentially host a goodbye party for a longtime member, while Rose City Antifa came to protest the fact some Patriot Prayer members had white supremacist ties. By the end of the drizzly day, however, it was clear that the groups—both of which were mostly angry white men—just wanted an excuse to yell at each other. Activists from both sides initiated physical fights, threw rocks, and slung childish insults over a stony-faced line of PPB officers dressed in riot gear.
It was one of the more violent rallies that Portland has seen since the inauguration of Donald Trump, but police kept their distance. Observers familiar with PPB’s past protest tactics say that officers were noticeably restrained, pausing before interfering with any scuffles. According to PPB, law enforcement agents only used pepper spray twice on protesters—and neither of those officers were members of PPB (one was a county deputy, the other a federal agent). By the end, four people had been arrested, two from each group.
Last weekend’s protest came only two days after IPR released their report—meaning there would have been little time for the PPB to retrain officers on crowd-control tactics. It’s unlikely that PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw—who has been singled out by critics for being slow to reveal substantive police reform measures—has made any major changes to crowd-control policies.
But since the mashup didn’t end with mass arrests or a haze of pepper spray, it still feels like a small, cautious win for civil rights in Portland.