PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The consulting firm hired by the City of Portland in May 2022 to perform an independent review of how the city government handled the racial justice protests and ensuing riots that rocked Portland in 2020 delivered its official report to the Portland City Council on Aug. 23.
Attorney Nicholas Mitchell with Independent Monitor LLC presented the firm’s findings by highlighting several key takeaways from the report’s “review period,” which focused on the events that occurred between May and November of 2020.
“One of the most common expressions of emotion that we heard from Portlanders was a sense of surprise about what they perceive to be a militarized response by the Portland Police Bureau, and a sense of not being prepared for what crowd control might look like,” Mitchell said.
The firm also outlined recommendations for the city to avoid “repeating the errors of 2020.”
Trump’s deployment of federal officers “significantly escalated” the 2020 protests
On June 26, 2020, amid the protests, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to “protect American monuments, memorials and statues” and to combat “recent criminal violence.” The order deployed more than 700 federal officers to the streets of Portland, which Independent Monitor, LLC says intensified conflict in the city.
“During the review period, the Federal government sent more than 700 federal officers to Portland, which from our review of the available evidence, significantly escalated the level of street conflict,” Mitchell said.
The deployment resulted in highly publicized clashes between protesters and law enforcement that shifted toward federal buildings around the city.
“People were angry, and we needed leaders out there, and we needed them out there to say that ‘We hear you,’” said community member Ashley Schofield. “Instead, we were thrown bullets.”
The months-long riots resulted in serious injury to both protesters and law enforcement.
“During much of July, there were notable clashes with federal law enforcement officers at the Hatfield Courthouse that included attempts by persons to penetrate it, set fires, and in some cases, assault federal officers,” the report reads. “Significant amounts of force were used by federal authorities, including large volumes of CS gas and other less-lethal munitions, including, in well-publicized cases, less-lethal munitions that caused grievous injury to persons who were not engaged in any violence.”
PPB used a “significant” amount of force during the protests
The Portland Police Bureau used physical force against protesters more than 6,000 times between May and November of 2022. An estimated 438 of these incidents involved “riot control” weapons like tear gas grenades, area-impact munitions or rubber-ball grenades and direct-impact munitions from FN303 and 40mm launchers.
“PPB was forced to grapple with various operational, legal, and political constraints during the review period,” the report reads. “Some of these constraints were imposed as a result of PPB’s own practices, including its uses of force, while others either pre-dated George Floyd’s murder or may have arisen independent of PPB’s handling of the protests and riots.”
PPB’s use of force sparked local controversy, the report reads, and by Sept. 10, Mayor Wheeler banned PPB use of tear gas unless authorized by mayoral approval under circumstances with “an immediate risk of death or serious physical injury which cannot otherwise be safely addressed without a greater application of force.”
The City of Portland wasn’t transparent with the public about its strategies, causing public mistrust
Portland citizens interviewed by the consulting firm were frequently surprised by PPB’s “overly militarized” response to the 2020 protests, the report reads. While PPB leaders were frequently involved in policing conferences and traveling around the world to consult or train other departments on proper police standards, the report states that, at home, PPB was failing to discuss its strategies with its own citizens, ultimately leading to a loss of trust and public respect.
“With all this fanfare around the country, at home, there was little public discussion about [the rapid response team] or its strategies, tactics, or munitions,” the report states. “There were no crowd control citizen police academies, no efforts to collaborate with the public on use of force policies related to crowd control, and little in the way of public introduction to RRT, its members, equipment, or approaches.”
Instead, Portland has a “dizzying variety of committees with sometimes overlapping mandates regarding public safety.”
“When those sort of rules of engagement are not consistent on a night-to-night basis, it can cause officers and community members to begin to doubt the sort of logic and legitimacy of the department’s approach,” Mitchell said.
The report described the mandates as an “alphabet soup” of community engagement with no meaningful public involvement.
“What level of threats to life or safety should result in the forced dispersal of crowds with [tear gas]?” the report reads. “What kinds of munitions should be available to the RRT? Should it have access to rubber-ball grenades? What policies should guide officer decision-making for uses of force during public order incidents? What kinds of personal protective equipment should officers use and why? These questions were not systematically addressed or reviewed in partnership between PPB and these community entities.”
PPB leaders regularly failed to visit the scene of the protests or discuss response strategies with officers
While the field officers responding to the protests were regularly overworked and given “little sleep,” they’re managing officers were seemingly uninvolved in the protest response. PPB administrators also failed to consistently establish its rules of engagement with officers before deployment, the report reads.
“In 2020, PPB canceled days off and many officers were working night after night, often on little sleep,” the report reads. “Our interviews with officers reflect that many of them felt stressed, unhappy, and, in some ways, not well cared for by their executive leaders. They noted that they did not see their leaders in the field very often, nor did PPB executives frequently participate in debriefs held in the field each night. This left PPB leaders without relevant information from the field, and officers feeling alone and unsupported by upper command.”
When interviewed, PPB administrators reportedly agreed with this assessment and said they were already working to correct their lack of leadership.
“In our interviews with PPB leaders, it is clear that they have recognized this issue on their own and already committed to being more visible during future public order deployments,” the report states.
“It’s more than a little disappointing that the review had to be done at all after PPB conducted two internal reviews giving themselves high marks for their work injuring, gassing, and traumatizing thousands of ordinary Portlanders trying to march in support of black lives,” said community member Marc Poris.
The outlined issues only represent a fraction of the 85-page report delivered to city council members on Wednesday afternoon, which also included numerous recommendations for how the city might correct these issues. Independent Monitor, LLC recommended that the City of Portland spend the next 180 days performing a “detailed self-assessment” of the governance outlined in the report.
To help rebuild public trust the report put forth twelve recommendations, including: Rebuild the city’s mutual aid network, PPB dramatically its reliance on riot control agents like tear gas, and clarifying public order or use of force directives.
The review also suggests the city create a new specialized Public Order Team, which is scrutinized by PPB executives and overseen by Portland’s new oversight agency. It also encourages PPB policy to require chiefs to be engaged with and visible to officers in the field during public order deployments.
To view the complete list of recommendations, scroll to the twelfth page of the report below:
Mayor Ted Wheeler did not attend the Wednesday session in-person, but virtually addressed council, acknowledging there was much he and police could have done differently during that stressful time.
“As difficult as it is to look back on probably the most challenging times in the history of our city, I can’t underscore enough the value of reflecting on those challenges and finding a path forward in the spirit of improvement and growth,” Wheeler said.
The consulting firm will return to the city council in 180 days to review the city progress. KOIN 6 will continue to report on the details of the Critical Assessment report.