After more than 100 days of demonstrations for racial justice, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has banned the city’s police force from using CS gas, a widely used form of tear gas, to disperse protesters.
For the last four months, the Portland Police Bureau, which Wheeler oversees, had routinely used the gas to try and end a night of protest and get the crowd to leave. In June, as demonstrations were beginning, Wheeler had restricted the use of the gas to times where violence at the protests threatened “life safety.” The gas had been deployed more sparingly since the mayor’s June orders, but its semi-regular use continued to outrage protesters subject to clouds of the chemical. Local advocacy group Don’t Shoot PDX had filed a lawsuit against the city for “indiscriminate use” of the gas.
He is now directing his police force to stop using the chemical completely.
“During the last hundred days Portland, Multnomah County and State Police have all relied on CS gas where there is a threat to life safety. We need something different,” Wheeler said in an emailed statement. “We need it now.”
The ban will take effect immediately. According to the mayor’s office it will last for the “foreseeable future.”
In his new direction, the mayor addressed CS gas, which has regularly been deployed onto the streets of Portland filling the areas with clouds of the chemical. But the move keeps the door open for police to continue using OC, another type of tear gas. Deployment of the OC gas is more targeted, fired with impact munitions that have caused serious injuries among protesters.
The Portland police had used the CS gas as recently as this past weekend. After large demonstrations marking the 100th day of protests, the police had deployed large quantities of the gas in the area around Portland’s East Precinct where it quickly filtered into residential homes. One city employee whose home was filled with the chemical told OPB he placed the blame squarely with the mayor.
As had many protesters who drew a straight line between the gassings and the mayor at the helm of the police bureau. Three months of protests had earned the mayor an unenviable nickname: Tear Gas Teddy.
Since protests began, the mayor had faced criticism from both sides over what sort of restrictions to place on the gas. Protesters insisted the chemical had no place being released on the city streets, pointing to the unknown health impacts of the gas and the fact that it was banned in warfare by the Geneva Convention. Portland city commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty had joined the call, pushing in early June for the city to issue a ban on the gas. Police, meanwhile, had insisted it was the safest option to disperse crowds, and curbing its use would leave them with few ways to get people to leave.
In his statement, the mayor said the ban was him taking a step to stop the nightly violence and encouraged others to follow the lead.
“I call on everyone to step up and tamp down the violence. I’m acting. It’s time for others to join me.”
The police bureau pushed back against the ban handed down by their boss in a lengthy statement released Thursday evening. They argued the bureau did not use the chemical simply to tame the crowds but reserved it for occasions when there was a significant amount of violence occurring within the group of demonstrators. They used last Saturday night, when Molotov cocktails were hurled in the direction of police, as an example.
In the statement, the bureau noted that the gas officers unleashed last Saturday had seeped into nearby homes and said “that is not something we desire.” But the bureau argued the focus should be on the actions of protesters, not the police response.
"The community should be asking the rioters why they are committing violence that threatens the very lives of others nearby,” the statement read. “When people gather lawfully, peacefully, there is no need for intervention by police, much less the use of CS gas.”
With the gas now off the table, the bureau warned dispersing crowds could become more physical with a greater chance that the nightly standoff between police and protesters will lead to serious injuries. With the bureau short-staffed and neighboring law enforcement agencies refusing to help, the police said it’s not clear how officers are supposed to prevent violence within the crowd and will have to lean more heavily on impact weapons.
“No one has presented a solution of how officers can stop a rioting group who are threatening the lives of those present, especially given that in most of these cases, officers are clearly outnumbered, sometimes by hundreds.“
The statement did not note the potential environmental and health impacts of tear gas, factors that have led many to question the use of the gas. Lawmakers had called for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to investigate the impacts of the gas as well as pepper spray and other chemicals, citing OPB’s reporting that showed possible reproductive health impacts from the gas. In July, OPB had spoken with 26 protesters, who all said they believe regular exposure to tear gas has caused irregularities within their menstrual cycles.
The Portland Police Association, a union that represents PPB officers, followed up Friday with its own rebuke of the ban, echoing the statement made by the police bureau and predicting the ban would “blow up in the mayor’s face.”
The union filed a grievance over the ban Friday morning, according to the statement.