PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Mayor Ted Wheeler has chided Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell and his command staff following a rare public disagreement.
Wheeler also has demanded a “communications plan” from the bureau as well as a plan to manage an upcoming Saturday, Sept. 26, demonstration planned by right-wing activists.
The backlash follows the events of Sept. 10. That morning, after months of scrutiny over the use of CS gas — or tear gas — by police, Wheeler announced that he was ordering the Portland Police Bureau to no longer use it for crowd control.
Six hours later, the bureau issued a press release of its own, saying it “needs” CS gas to avoid more serious injuries, and also saying the gas isn’t used for crowd control at all; rather it “is being used to disperse crowds only when there is a life safety event.”
In an email to Lovell and his assistant chiefs the next day, the mayor wrote that “while I do not often issue directives to the Portland Police Bureau, when I do I expect them to be followed. Civilian oversight of the Police Bureau is set in the Portland City Charter, and every sworn officer takes an oath to abide by that charter. Professionalism and public service demand nothing less.”
The Sept. 11 email, released in response to a Tribune request, refers to an earlier conversation between Lovell and Wheeler. Actually there were two that day, according to a knowledgeable source.
Asked for comment on the aftermath of the public clash, a spokesman for the bureau denied any insubordination, saying Lovell has made clear “the mayor is the police commissioner and the Police Bureau will be responsive to and follow the mayor’s direction.”
Wheeler, through his staff, issued a statement: “PPB’s decision to put out a press release questioning my direction was a serious breach of protocol and an inappropriate use of City communications resources. I made it clear, in no uncertain terms, to the Chief that this cannot happen again.”
Wheeler added that “The Chief took responsibility for that decision. He affirmed that there was never any intention of disobeying the directive.”
Wheeler himself was teargassed in July at a Black Lives Matter protest downtown. His ban on CS gas followed an earlier effort in June ordering the bureau to use it only when necessary.
Police and their supporters have maintained that sometimes tear gas is necessary, citing attacks on police from behind protester lines and efforts to protect the perpetrators by activists who seek to “de-arrest” people detained by police.
However, the continued use of CS gas and other chemical agents, including in Portland, has come under mounting scrutiny in recent months, sparking litigation and state legislation.
As the November election approaches, Wheeler faces an opponent on the ballot who is running to his left, consultant Sarah Iannarone, as well as write-in campaign for Black Lives Matter activist Teressa Raiford. Some protesters have dubbed Wheeler “Teargas Ted” while criticizing his announced police reforms as not going far enough.
The bureau’s seeming public resistance to Wheeler’s command threatened to fuel those criticisms.
Wheeler’s comment on the dust-up with Lovell stressed that the mayor is in command and that the bureau will comply with the CS gas ban.
The mayor added that “Chief Lovell and I are committed to working together as we have conversations with the community about how we provide public safety services in Portland.”
Recurring mayor-chief strife
In some cities, police chiefs are insulated from elected officials to prevent political meddling. In Portland, such concerns have historically been balanced against a bureaucratic chain of command enshrined in the City Charter and the imperative for civilian control over police. But that balance has been uneasy, repeatedly flaring up into tensions and even open hostility over the years. For instance:
In 2010 then-Mayor Sam Adams fired Chief Rosie Sizer after she held a press conference to question budget cuts he’d directed.
In 2014, then-chief Mike Reese sparked Mayor Charlie Hales’ displeasure for announcing a homelessness initiative without securing the mayor’s approval, according to The Oregonian.
In 2019, when Wheeler’s then-chief of staff Michael Cox sent a text message urging then-Chief Danielle Outlaw to do more to investigate and arrest right-wing protesters, she wrote back inviting him to “come out “and help, Willamette Week reported.
Now Wheeler faces not only the concerns expressed publicly by the bureau, but a test from the officers’ union, the Portland Police Association, which has filed a grievance saying the ban compromises officer safety.
“This ban will blow up in the Mayor’s face,” PPA President Daryl Turner said in a Sept. 11 statement, adding that it “will force officers to use more impact munitions and use more physical force to disperse crowds.”
The mayor apparently intends to take a more hands-on role as a conservative rally planned for September 26 approaches.
Wheeler’s email on Friday asked for by today, Sept. 16, “a plan to provide for the public to safely express their first amendment rights, prevent violence and stop criminal activity, secure the partnership of neighboring jurisdictions, and abide by the directives I have laid out.”
Wheeler also demanded by Wednesday “a new media protocol to improve coordination and awareness and send it to my Chief of Staff for our evaluation and approval.”