Portland police officers used force more than 6,000 times against protesters last year

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A demonstrator is pepper sprayed shortly before being arrested during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

  • Portland police used force 6,000 times against protesters last year, according to DOJ attorneys.
  • These incidents at times violated department policies and top brass didn’t question it, they said.
  • Portland became a flashpoint for protest activity and police response after George Floyd’s death.
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In late May, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, erupted as a hotbed for protest activity, with demonstrators taking to the streets for more than 100 consecutive days.

It also became a flashpoint for clashes between police and protesters. Demonstrators were at many times peaceful but in some instances engaged in violence and vandalism, while federal and local law enforcement repeatedly used aggressive tactics in response to the protests.

But legal documents filed by attorneys for the Department of Justice last month have started to paint a picture of just how frequently officers turned to force.

Portland Police Bureau officers used force “more than 6,000 times” during “crowd-control events” between May 29 and November 15 – an average of 35 times per day – the attorneys said, summarizing the DOJ’s review of PPB officers’ conduct as part of a previous settlement agreement.

“PPB has failed to maintain substantial compliance with the Agreement’s force-policy requirements,” they said.

PPB did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment on this story.

“Some of this force deviated from force policy, and supervisors frequently validated individual uses of force with little or no discussion of reasonableness of the force used,” the DOJ attorneys said. “Many [after-action reviews] did not include any witness interviews or officer interviews. Many [reviews] contained similar or identical, i.e., cut-and-paste, language.”

The DOJ’s review also found that commands from top brass often didn’t translate effectively to front-line officers, leading to the agency to conclude that in some cases, those officers’ “movements were chaotic and could have been executed better.”

The review also determined that PPB improperly justified its use of force by claiming all members of a protest were engaged in “active aggression” simply by being part of a crowd where some people were being aggressive. In one example, according to the document, an officer justified firing a “less-lethal impact munition” at an individual because they “engaged in ‘furtive conversation’ and ran away.”

The DOJ did acknowledge, however, that officers in Portland faced “substantial challenges” stemming from the wave of protests, which it said often included a “criminal element,” as well as a rise in violent crime across the city and budget cuts that hindered training.

Portland faced a particularly complex blend of protest activity last year, some of which has continued into 2021.

Many of the demonstrators, particularly in the early months, protested police brutality and systemic racism, and drew from a diverse crowd ranging from BLM activists to suburban moms, veterans, and doctors. But Portland’s Black police chief also called out a small subset of violent protesters, and there is an emerging schism between the city’s progressive groups – with some continuing to engage in vandalism.

Portland has also seen a surge in far-right activity, with Proud Boys and other white supremacist militia groups clashing with protesters, anti-lockdown protesters violently storming the state capitol, and election conspiracy theorists rallying at the capitol in January.

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Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler pepper sprayed a man during a confrontation outside of a restaurant

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Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler reacts after being exposed to tear gas fired by federal officers while attending a protest against police brutality and racial injustice in front of the Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse on July 22, 2020 in Portland, Oregon.

  • Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler used pepper spray on an unmasked man Sunday night.
  • Wheeler told police the man was harassing him and refusing to back away.
  • The incident took place as Wheeler was leaving a restaurant.
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The mayor of Portland told police that he asked the man to back away. When the man refused, he took out his pepper spray and spritzed him in the eyes – before offering him a bottle of water to wash it out.

“He had no face mask and got within a foot or two of my face while he was videoing me,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said, according to a police report obtained by The Oregonian. “I became imminently concerned for my personal safety.”

The incident took place Sunday night after Wheeler, a Democrat, was leaving a restaurant where had dined with one of his predecessors, Mayor Sam Adams.

According to Wheeler’s statement to police, he was confronted by an unmasked videographer who accused him of not wearing a facial covering while he dined.

“I clearly informed him that he needed to back off. He did not do so I informed him that I was carrying pepper spray and that I would use it if he did not back off,” Wheeler told law enforcement. “He remained at close distance, I pulled out my pepper spray and I sprayed him in the eyes.”

A spokesperson for Wheeler told The Oregonian that the mayor “is cooperating with the police investigation.”

Over the summer, the mayor was himself hit with a chemical irritant by federal agents deployed in his city, which some anti-racist protesters took as poetic justice for the use of chemical irritants by Portland police under his watch – spurring one local cook to name a hot sauce after the mayor: “Tear Gas Ted.

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