How Portland's insurgency neutralized police crowd tactics
This article was produced in partnership with Underscore, a Portland nonprofit newsroom focused on collaborative journalism.
The Portland Police Bureau has long maintained that its crowd-control tactics are among the best in the country. When major news outlets need a national expert to comment on policing during protests, they sometimes call on Portland officials. When out-of-state police officers need a course in crowd control, they do the same.
But in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Portland's protesters have battled local police to a standstill. The stalemate has led to federal police deployment to protect federal property and to assist the PPB, sparking controversy and thrusting the city into the national spotlight.
How did the protesters do it? Through determination, training, tactics shared on social media, and legal support and financial backing. The protesters have also exploited the questionable police tactics that have been employed due to staffing shortfalls and, some say, political calculation.
To read other articles in this package: Local leaders used same playbook as protests continued
The result is an ongoing quagmire in which police use the same controversial tactics night after night — clearing masses of protesters in response to provocations by a few. This strategy has generated a cascade of negative publicity while failing to stop the vandalism, arson, and attacks on police carried out by a small fraction of protest participants.
"They're losing the PR battle," said Jim Moore, a Pacific University government professor who serves as political outreach director of the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement. "Regardless of the reforms that [elected leaders] are talking about, when you fire tear gas and flash-bangs, it looks like an occupying army."
Garth den Heyer, who spent 38 years as a police officer in New Zealand and studied and wrote extensively on crowd policing and counterterrorism as an instructor at Arizona State University, said the problem is not limited to Portland. "I think police are really suffering from a lack of leadership or a lack of reading or interpretation of what cities and communities are thinking at the moment," said den Heyer. "They're obviously caught in something they don't understand or know how to respond to."
Criticism about the use of tear gas and riot munitions is neither new nor just a Portland issue. Many crowd-control experts say these tools often undermine the overall aim of controlling crowds. Other times they backfire completely. Edward Maguire, a professor in criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University who has written books on and researched crowd control with federal funding, says a better approach is to use teams of officers — colloquially known as "snatch teams" — to arrest only the people who are actively engaging in crime.
"One of the things that really upsets me about what I'm seeing around the country is … police taking enforcement action against an entire crowd in response to the misbehavior of just a few people," Maguire said. "But the few people are not getting arrested."
Mayor Ted Wheeler, however, scoffs at the idea of targeted mid-protest arrests, saying such moves merely incite the crowd. Officers, he said, "don't go wading into the crowd of hundreds to try to make the arrest unless they're darn certain they have the right person, and they can do it safely. Instead, they follow up with the investigative unit."
Privately, local police say that an often-overlooked problem at the root of this mess is too few officers to do the job effectively. Some protesters have prepared for such efforts and pride themselves on a tactic dubbed "de-arresting," pulling fellow protesters away from police trying to take them into custody.
Without sufficient reinforcements, even police using the snatch-team approach will be shorthanded. Yet with several lawsuits filed against Portland police already, other agencies in Oregon are reluctant to send officers to support crowd-control efforts, as would happen under normal circumstances. "We don't have the people," said one longtime officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Beyond that, some officers hint that bureau leadership wants them to avoid the unfavorable optics that can accompany aggressive arrest tactics in the middle of a demonstration, like the use of batons or scuffles with shrieking protesters.
Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner suggested that, in general, pressure from elected leaders doesn't allow bureau managers to respond as quickly or aggressively to outbreaks of violence as they would otherwise.
"I think our hands are somewhat tied by the political dynamics of the City of Portland," Turner said. He added that the city council does not provide the support "to allow us to act as swiftly and appropriately as we need to to some of these riots to be able to disband them earlier, before they become almost out of control."
Even without more aggressive arrests, the constant pressure of nightly clashes has produced numerous videos of what appears to be excessive force and other misconduct, including against journalists. Outside the Portland Police Association office early on July 14, for instance, an officer violently knocked a cell phone camera from the hand of a protester who was recording peacefully, committing no crime.
No Jail Time
The challenge for police is not only how to make appropriate arrests. It's what comes next.
In non-pandemic times, police rely on jail time to detain protesters suspected of crimes like arson, assault, or vandalism. But COVID-19 makes that impossible. Under current guidelines adopted to respond to the coronavirus, most defendants booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center are immediately released without bail. Meanwhile, due to the coronavirus' impact on court scheduling, protest cases are being postponed until August, prosecutors say, meaning even less accountability for those who do perpetrate violent crimes.
For those who get arrested and need bail, nonprofits have stepped up to support any defendant jailed while protesting under the banner of Black Lives Matter. An online legal fund organized by the Portland General Defense Committee has raised more than $1 million to pay for bail, criminal defense, and related costs for defendants, according to Amelia Cates, an organizer behind the effort. Most people are bailed out within 12 hours of being arrested. Beyond that, many Portland defense lawyers are volunteering to represent protesters for no charge.
"There's such an outpouring of generosity and desire from people to support people in the streets," Cates said. It's critical, she continued, to ensure that protesters can exercise their First Amendment rights and "go out and make a difference and make change happen."
No one knows what the next round of protests will bring, but the cycle cannot continue in perpetuity. Den Heyer, the crowd-control expert, said the PPB needs to adapt. The city needs more creative and proactive methods that support peaceful protest while carefully discouraging violence. From the look of things, he added, leadership needs new ideas. "Their tactics aren't right at the moment."
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