Summer of Violent Policing Means More Federal Review for Portland Police

Portland police were already under federal supervision for violent policing. Then they racked up over 6,000 use of force incidents during a summer of protests calling for an end to such abuse.

A demonstrator throws a tear gas canister back at officers during a Black Lives Matter protest at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — A summer of violent protest policing means local cops are no longer in compliance with a Department of Justice settlement reached to correct a pattern of excessive force police used against people with mental health disabilities, the department announced late Wednesday.

The city agreed in 2014 to adopt a slew of changes to its policing practices to settle a 2012 report by the Justice Department finding Portland police engage in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force against people with mental health disabilities or who police think might have them.

In January 2020, the city was well on its way to dissolving its obligations to the feds: for the first time, the Justice Department found Portland police in “substantial compliance” with reforms mandated by the settlement. All it had to do was maintain that status for one year.

Then police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and video of the brutal last minutes of his life sparked over five months of nightly protests. On some nights, thousands marched in Portland streets. Riot cops often responded with violence, deploying pepper spray, rubber bullets and deafening flash bangs and racking up over 6,000 use-of-force incidents this year. Police used so much tear gas last summer that protesters reported changes to their menstrual cycles and the city launched an investigation into pollution in the Willamette River from chemical munitions.

The Department of Justice issued a report Wednesday night finding the city is no longer in compliance with four key sections of the settlement agreement — use of force, training, accountability and community engagement.

Portland police used violence not allowed by the Portland Police Bureau’s use of force policy, the report states. Supervisors “frequently” OK’d the use of force without determining whether it was reasonable. Only half of Portland police have completed necessary training. The Independent Police Review didn’t complete investigations within the 180-day time limit mandated by the settlement. And the police bureau didn’t present its 2019 annual report to the public in all precincts, as it was required to do.

Some of the problems originated with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner. On Sept. 10, Wheeler announced a ban on the use of tear gas for crowd control. But he didn’t provide additional guidance to police on what that ban meant and didn’t consult with the Justice Department on what amounted to a change in the use-of-force agreement under the settlement, according to the report.

“We repeatedly pushed for clarification from PPB, yet PPB did not produce specific guidance for implementation until Jan. 13, 2021,” attorneys with the civil rights division of the Department of Justice wrote.

The report points to a restraining order imposed by a federal judge, ordering police not to use force against protesters engaged in passive resistance — and to the judge’s later finding that the city had violated that restraining order. U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez is now mulling sanctions after he found the city in contempt.

The Justice Department called for the city to complete investigations of the summer’s “use-of-force events” and create a new way to investigate police violence in crowd-control. Police should also assess the role of supervisors, implement further crowd-control training, reduce timelines for investigations of force and follow their own guidelines when it comes to use of force and reporting those incidents, the report says.

“PPB repeatedly has asserted that certain impactful events — Covid 19, national political turmoil, and a wildfire season — were beyond its control,” the report states. “True though that may be, those events do not eliminate the city’s obligations under this agreement and the Constitution.”

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