Wheeler apologizes for tear gas use, plans for downtown restoration

2020 Protests

Wednesday was the 62nd consecutive night of protests in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Both Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell spoke out on Thursday morning amid tensions surrounding downtown protests.

In his press conference, Wheeler notably apologized for his use of CS gas on protesters. He also listed what he believes are elements to restoring the downtown area, which include the removal of the federal presence, deescalating the nightly violence, an aggressive clean-up of the downtown area and the reopening of businesses while coinciding with COVID-19 safety measures.

KOIN 6 News Reporter Jacquelyn Abad asked Mayor Wheeler if he has any insight on the confusing information the public has been seeing over federal officials withdrawing from Portland. The question comes after conflicting messaging between Governor Brown and the Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf circulated.

“The governor’s given me her assurance that the federal officers are leaving. There will still be a presence of local officers who live here, who work in this community. It is my understanding that they will remain inside the federal buildings while OSP will be outside engaging with the public,” Wheeler said.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there’s confusing messaging — you have the acting secretary [of DHS] saying one thing that appears to contradict what the governor is saying.

Chief Lovell said he is optimistic that OSP officers will be helpful downtown. “We have a good long standing partnership with them… I’m very hopeful we can manage these events much better than they have been in the last few weeks,” Lovell said.

Wheeler was asked about his thoughts on the Portland City Council voting unanimously in support of an independent commission to oversee misconduct investigations of the Portland police officers. Portland’s civilian oversight office has been beefed up several times since the first one was formed in 1982.

“As we look at the oversight and accountability mechanism used by the Portland Police Bureau and our auditor and our internal review process — it comes up lacking.”

When asked about the backlash he’s faced for his own directives on crowd control over the course of the protests, Wheeler had a lengthy explanation of his choice to use CS gas. The justification included an apology.

“There were times early on in these demonstrations where I believe I saw the PPB make mistakes when it came to crowd dispersal. I saw what appeared to be and what was reported from the streets to be indiscriminate use of crowd control devices. I came to the conclusion that that was the case. So for the first time in my administration, I used tactical directives.

“I chose overtly to do it under these circumstances. What I did was immediately prohibited the use of L-RAD and prohibited the use of CS gas, commonly called tear gas in all but life-safety circumstances. Just two days ago I met with Governor Brown, Commissioner Hardesty, PPB Chief Lovell and I asked them what was our joint commitment around using CS gas.

“We agreed on the use of tear gas being limited to circumstances where there was a risk of serious injury or death. That is our consensus opinion and it is consistent with my directive I put in place weeks ago. CS gas has been used by the PPB exactly twice in the month of July.”

“I apologize to those non-violent demonstrators who were subjected to CS gas or L-RAD. It should never have happened, I take personal responsibility for it and I’m sorry. I also want to draw a clear distinction between the Portland Police Bureau’s use of CS gas and what we’re seeing the federal use. The federal officers are using CS gas broadly, indiscriminately and nightly — and that is why it is escalating the behavior we’re seeing on the street rather than of deescalating it and that is why this must come to an end.”

Wheeler was probed about his time on the ground with the protesters when he experienced the gas for himself.

“Tear gas is an ugly substance. It is very hard to use it in a targeted way. I watched it being used — from my perspective — in a broad and indiscriminate manner,” Wheeler said.

“This isn’t going to be solved by public safety officers,” he continued. “This is going to be solved by us committing that we have heard, understood and are demonstrably addressing reforms and changes that people have non-violently have been protesting for weeks.”

Many people believe that the presence of federal officers in Portland has only increased tensions between authorities and protesters. When asked for his opinion, Wheeler said he agrees.

“It is no question that the ferver has escalated around the unwanted presence of federal agents in our city,” he said. “They’re coming to our city to defend our city against a federal government and an administration that seems hellbent on using federal law enforcement to target cities controlled by Democratic mayors. That is not American. People are coming out and saying they want this to end.”

However, he did concede that there are some people who are focused on destruction — not the larger message behind the demonstrations.

“There is also small number of people — I met them up close, in person — that are hellbent on vandalism,” he said. “They are, in my opinion, a small group. They are involved in criminal activity, they are not there supporting, in my opinion, Black lives or racial justice — they are there for other purposes. They are a distraction to the larger movement.”

“I’m hopeful we will get back to the message of police reform,” Chief Lovell said when asked whether he thought the latest protests had shifted from the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the end of his remarks, Mayor Wheeler took a moment to condemn recent emails that have been sent to Hardesty.

“She is getting some emails that are flat our racist. If you’re ever wondering whether racism is still alive and well in Portland I can confirm that it is — and she is being subjected to it,” he said. “You can disagree with Commissioner Hardesty, with me or with anyone else on the city council but do not send the kind of emails she has been receiving, that go way over the line and are flat out racist and in many cases threatening.”

This press conference follows the announcement that federal officers will be leaving Portland beginning Thursday. On Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown said “all Customs and Border Protection & ICE officers will leave downtown Portland” after discussions with Homeland Security.

Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton said OSP is honored to aid the city of Portland and will help patrol the federal courthouse.

Since the arrival of federal officers in Portland in early July, tensions have escalated, protests have grown, tempers have gotten shorter and a public feud has erupted between Oregon’s elected leaders and officials with the Trump Administration.

A demonstrator’s protective helmet reads “Federal Mercenaries Go Home” during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

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