A Portland city commissioner and current candidate for mayor has repeated calls for the city to limit or even prohibit public input that’s critical of police during city council meetings. 

Before approving an $11,500 legal settlement Wednesday for the plaintiff in a bodily injury lawsuit stemming from a 2020 protest, the Portland City Council heard input from Marc Poris, of Portland Copwatch. Copwatch is an informal, volunteer-based group established in 1992 that documents Portland Police Bureau (PPB) policy and conduct. The group operates with the goal of fostering accountability and creating a police bureau "free of corruption, brutality, and racism."

During his allotted three-minute public testimony, Poris lamented a pattern of excessive force used by PPB during the 2020 racial justice protests, and a seeming lack of accountability.

Poris routinely gives input to Portland City Council on behalf of Copwatch about agenda items related to policing.

On Wednesday, just before voting to approve the settlement agreement, City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez unleashed a brief tirade, insisting that residents like Poris and other police watchdogs have no legal right to address the council on matters related to legal settlements involving the police bureau.

“Mayor, I just want to say I strongly object to continuing to platform abolitionists that cannot testify on the matter before council,” Gonzalez said. “We have done this for a year and a half while I’ve sat on council. They have no constitutional right to testify on matters not before us at this point.”

The comments elicited no reaction from the rest of the council, which promptly moved to the next agenda item before adjourning. 

Gonzalez seemed to suggest Poris’s input wasn’t directly related to the PPB lawsuit the city voted to settle, and Poris should’ve instead spoken during general comments at the start of the meeting.

“We have repeatedly platformed this nonsense, so I strongly object, going forward," Gonzalez added.

Poris told the Mercury that Gonzalez's comments seemed like an escalation of his discomfort with Copwatch's testimony on police issues.

Portland City Council listens to feedback from the Police Accountability Commission in 2023.
Pictured: Mingus Mapps, Carmen Rubio, Ted Wheeler, Rene Gonzalez, and Dan Ryan. courtney vaughn

"It feels like he is not interested in hearing anything negative about the police bureau," Poris said. "It's a troubling perspective because an absence of police accountability makes things worse for everyone, including officers who do not engage in misconduct."

Juan Chavez is an attorney with Oregon Justice Resource Center who represented the plaintiff, Kelcie Ulmer, in the lawsuit the city settled.

Chavez was bewildered by Gonzalez's comments during the council meeting, especially given Gonzalez's legal background. Gonzalez previously worked as a business attorney. 

Chavez says there's no legal ground to implement the kind of restrictions Gonzalez wants.

“Content discrimination is what we call it in the law," Chavez told the Mercury. "It is shocking that someone who is barred with the Oregon State Bar would suggest that.”

Gonzalez's staff did not immediately respond to questions and requests for input.

What was said

In his comments to the council Wednesday, Poris detailed the events that led to the lawsuit, and legal issues surrounding PPB’s Rapid Response Team—a special unit that responds to riots and other large public demonstrations—which was resurrected this year

The complaint, filed in 2022, details the evening of June 30, 2020, when a group engaging in a protest outside the police union headquarters was rushed by police. Ulmer, the plaintiff, was reportedly shot in the buttocks and back by officer Brent Taylor, before being forcibly pulled to the ground and arrested. Despite the arrest, Ulmer was never indicted.

“Court records say Officer Taylor testified that he fired his impact munition weapon 40 to 60 times within just a few hours that day, and videos depict him frequently firing multiple rapid shots into the crowd,” Poris said. “Four days prior to this incident, Judge Hernandez signed a temporary restraining order restricting the exact unnecessary use of force that PPB’s Brent Taylor used on Kelcie Ulmer. His actions on June 30 violated the order.”

The Rapid Response Team was disbanded in 2021 after every officer on the team quit the special unit in protest of a fellow officer being indicted for assault, after striking a female photojournalist in the head with a baton.

Charges against the officer were later dismissed and he released a video apology last year, but the city has paid out more than $2.8 million to settle multiple bodily injury lawsuits stemming from the Rapid Response Team's conduct during protests in 2020 and 2021.

Poris said Copwatch is “encouraged” that Officer Taylor, who was named in Ulmer's lawsuit, isn’t listed on the latest roster of the newly reformed Rapid Response Team.

But Poris said he's unsettled by Portland Police Chief Bob Day’s recent comments that he’s not sure officers should be punished for things that happened four years ago. 

“That attitude is disturbing for many reasons, not the least of which is that these dangerous cops should have been disciplined and in some cases, fired long ago,” Poris told the council. 

This isn't the first time Gonzalez, or the council, has reacted negatively to public comments and concerns about police conduct. 

During a May 16 council meeting, Gonzalez railed against Portland Copwatch, labeling the group an "extreme" organization after Dan Handelman of Copwatch outlined potential pitfalls in the city's plan to expand PPB's ability to rehire recent retirees.

"I want to be crystal clear. I have strong objections to giving extreme groups like Copwatch the right to dictate when the police chief chooses to hire retirees," Gonzalez said. 

Portland Copwatch responded with an open letter to Commissioner Gonzalez, calling his comments "out of line."

"Using derogatory names to describe a grassroots volunteer organization that is working towards a Police Bureau free of brutality, corruption, and racism feels like an attempt to stifle community participation," the letter states. "We have cc'd Chief Day here to see if he shares this opinion that our group, which has a long history of dialogue with the current and with previous Chiefs, is 'extreme,' or indeed whether our suggestion for writing down criteria for the rehires— that seems to jibe with the Chief's background check plan— is 'extreme' and whether we 'dictated' that idea to him."

Chavez, the attorney, shared concerns over Officer Taylor still being employed at PPB without ever being disciplined for the use of force that led to Wednesday's legal settlement, but he has deeper concerns about Gonzalez's repeated requests to shut out public input related to policing.

“It’s not becoming of a public official to believe he could come up with that kind of censorship, let alone a barred attorney," Chavez said.