PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland police officers used “unprecedented levels” of force during the 2020 protests in Portland, according to a report from an agency in charge of civilian oversight of the Portland Police Bureau looking into the city’s response to protests related to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
The Independent Police Review’s report looks back at 2020 and Portland’s police accountability system. As part of the report, the agency makes recommendations to the police chief for operational and police improvements to strengthen the accountability system.
After hundreds of Portlanders took to the streets in 2020 to protest racial injustice, said the report, protesters and law enforcement officers from various agencies interacted night after night in downtown Portland and other locations.
This included more than 100 consecutive nights of protests.
“Police officers used force at unprecedented levels,” said the agency in its findings. “Community members filed hundreds of complaints with the Independent Police Review, and it initiated additional investigations.”
Many of those protests ended with clashes between protesters and officers with warnings to disperse and tear gas in the air. People were arrested and injured community members were whisked away for medical care by other protesters, added the report.
The document noted that more than 160 police misconduct investigations have been initiated into Portland Police Bureau officers based on incidents that occurred between May and November 2020.
Many of those investigations are still working their way through the discipline system, and the Independent Police Review says it continues to open investigations as information becomes available from community members, tort claim notices and other sources.
The agency identified areas that hindered the city’s ability to hold officers accountable, saying, the breadth and frequency of force used by Portland officers was unprecedented along with the dynamic conditions and inadequate documentation of force incidents limiting accountability.
Unusual levels of physical force during protests
According to the report, officers documented more than 6,000 uses of force during the protests. It went on to say that the bureau and other law enforcement agencies cited crowed behavior as the rationale for using force but struggled to build prosecutable cases of criminal conduct by individuals.
“If people in the crowd threw rocks or other harmful projectiles at officers, commanders declared the protest to be an unlawful assembly or riot and ordered the crowd to disperse. Officers lined up, side-by-side, and began walking toward or running at and pushing the protesters away from the gatherings,” recalled the report. “Many non-violent protestors and bystanders got caught in the sweeping motion, and some were arrested. The tactic was sometimes paired with the use of chemical irritants and less-lethal munitions to force people out of an area.”
The report says bureau directives require officers to de-escalate tense situations and use physical force only when needed.
During the protests, officers seemed to interpret unlawful assembly and dispersal orders amplified by a sound truck as de-escalation, and subsequent force used against anyone who did not appear to obey them as justified, the IPR said about its findings.
“Hundreds of hours of video footage showed repeated incidents of officers resorting to physical control methods with both passive protestors and aggressive resistors,” added the agency.
Attempts to disperse the crowd often led to increased resistance by protesters followed by increased uses of force by officers, according to the report.
“This dynamic over time eroded protestors’ confidence that city leaders respected their constitutional right to free speech and assembly. It also further hardened the protestors’ relationship with the police,” the agency said.
Some protesters turned to the courts to object to the police response.
The report said judges issued restraining orders against the city and the bureau to stop the use of CS gas and impact munitions, which are less lethal but can cause serious harm. The courts also ordered the bureau to respect the role of journalists during protests and required additional training for officers.
“The backlash against the bureau’s use of CS gas was profound,” noted IPR. “Numerous community members and protestors condemned its indiscriminate effects on anyone in proximity to a protest…”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler then banned its use.
In response, said IPR, bureau leaders and the Portland Police Association said they were being deprived of a “valuable tool” for crowd control and to expect higher uses of force to disperse crowds.
The agency added that Oregon legislators were unmoved. They proposed and passed bills in the 2021 session to limit the use of chemical irritants and impact munitions to manage crowds.
IPR’s review also listed “inadequate” documentation undercutting police accountability, lack of direct access to bureau evidence slowing investigations and community members approved tactics as misconduct in the documentation.
The report also listed recommendations to improve policies and operations to ensure accountability related to protest events. IPR says the chief should include and prioritize accountability in policy setting, related procedures and training – especially those to be developed for body-worn cameras.
Other recommendations include reviewing and amending directives to be relevant criteria for determining policy violations stemming from large dynamic events.
To read the full report, click here.
The Portland Police Bureau responded to the report in a letter by Portland Police Chief Charles Lovell.
Lovell thanked the Independent Police Review for their findings and said the bureau is working on a contract with Independent Monitor LLC to do a “critical assessment” of the bureau’s 2020 crowd management response.
“This assessment will include an extensive review of reports, feedback from city employees and members of the community, and analysis of available video,” said Lovell in a letter. “We anticipate that the findings of this critical assessment will also contain recommendations to policy and training.”
He added that he agrees in principle with the recommendations provided in IPR’s review, but said the bureau doesn’t have a full-time crowd control team and will defer to the results of any upcoming critical assessment before committing to any specific actions.