Tear gas and less-lethal munition suppliers for the Portland Police Bureau received federal payroll protection loans, even as the city spent significant amounts this year on those companies’ products, according to a records analysis by OPB.
Nationally, critics have pointed to high-profile cases where companies questionably grabbed a piece of Congress’ quickly-constructed $500 billion loan program this year, such as the $4.6 million loan received by the Los Angeles Lakers, which was later returned.
Locally, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported a third of the money from the paycheck protection program in Oregon went to just 1.6% of businesses who applied.
But a review of loan and spending records by OPB shows one of the more surprising beneficiaries of the program during a year of civil unrest — particularly in Portland — was tear gas and less-lethal weapon munitions suppliers.
Portland police spending on riot control munitions far outpaces previous years
During more than 100 consecutive nights of protests for racial justice in the city, the Portland Police Bureau bought significant amounts of the weapons, even as their suppliers were benefiting from federal stimulus funds. Meanwhile, small businesses say they continue to struggle in Portland and hope the next round of stimulus being considered by Congress actually reaches them.
In the first six months of this year, Portland police purchased more than $170,000 in riot control munitions. That figure far outstrips the average $73,000 in crowd control munitions Portland police spent each of the three years prior — a time when the city saw regular protests.
Portland police weren’t alone in their demand for less lethal munitions this summer either, as protests nationwide against police brutality were frequently met with police gassing and firing impact munitions into crowds indiscriminately.
“There’s been mass protests unlike anything the country has seen,” said Rachel Moran, an associate professor who studies police accountability at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. “Non-lethals do escalate situations, routinely. They might not kill people, but they create violence.”
This year, Portland police ordered more than $67,000 in less-lethal munitions from Tigard company Curtis Blue Line, including more than $22,000 in tear gas, $11,000 in rubber pellet grenades and $4,800 in smoke grenades. Curtis Blue Line is a division of California-based L&N Curtis and Sons, which primarily sells firefighter equipment. In April, before widespread protests began following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the company received over $2.5 million in paycheck protection loans.
Portland police this summer also frequently used impact munitions, such as 40mm sponge rounds intended for “pain stimulus,” according to the manufacturer. The 40mm round travels at a speed of 221 miles per hour and they have sent protestors to the hospital.
PPB ordered $96,000 of the 40mm less-lethal sponge impact rounds from Aardvark Tactical. The California-based company received more than $46,000 in paycheck protection loans.
Aardvark also received $1.1 million in orders from federal law enforcement, according to federal purchase orders obtained by OPB. The company provided $914,000 in Tasers to the U.S. Secret Service, $98,000 in Tasers to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as $83,000 in tactical robots for ICE.
Portland police also purchased more than $7,000 worth of munitions including tear gas and pepper balls from Hurricane Butterly, a Washington-based company that received $38,300 in paycheck protection loans.
The munitions companies declined requests for comment for this story.
Local small businesses seek lifeline after PPP loan whiff
Even as the weapons companies were seeing a significant boost in their sales this year, some businesses in Portland found the payroll protection program difficult to navigate.
“We were closed, we were getting no income,” said Kimberly Brown, the third-generation owner of Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop, one of the longest-running Black-owned businesses in Portland. “My grandparents opened the salon in 1954. My mom worked there until she retired. I’ve been working there since 1986.”
When the salon closed during the lockdown in Oregon, it left Brown wondering about the business’ future. She said it also left Black Portlanders without a community space.
“I applied for a PPP loan. I got denied, twice,” Brown said.
Like many small business owners, Brown said she’s frustrated with how some bigger companies were able to get federal help so easily. “It makes you really sad. It makes you uncomfortable even trying to continue your business,” Brown said. ”The deck has always been stacked against us ... It goes back to institutionalized racism. It goes back to redlining.”
Brown isn’t alone in her frustration with the federal loan program.
“We applied and were turned down,” said Paola LaMorticella, who owns a small cosmetics company called Olio E Osso. “We didn’t have a brick and mortar and we’re a manufacturing facility that wasn’t considered essential.”
The difference in access to federal stimulus money had consequences for Olio E Osso and similar small businesses.
“We got disenfranchised and we ended up letting everyone go,” said LaMorticella, who retained just two of the company’s 12 employees. “The system is so broken. All my friends that own restaurants too, we’re only as strong as our community.”
Looking to elected leaders for help survive coronavirus pandemic
Since the massive buy of weapons this summer by Portland police, city officials have passed a resolution that requires police to inventory how many less-lethal weapons are in the department’s stockpile each quarter. That resolution also requires the Police Bureau to seek approval before spending more money on less-lethal weapons.
Still, small businesses in the city say that means little to them when finding financial support has been difficult throughout the pandemic. Some say they are hoping elected leaders in Congress or local officials will find ways to help them survive until the pandemic is under control enough to start reopening.
“What we’re seeing is that our small businesses are bearing the full brunt of this crisis,” said Sarah Shaoul, co-founder of Bricks Need Mortar, a business support organization. “Outside of health workers, they’re taking the most risk by showing up every day.”
Shaoul said small businesses in Portland haven’t seen “significant relief” for costs like rent. A survey of 90 businesses by Bricks Need Mortar found two-thirds reported sales drops of at least 50%.
“We hope this next relief package is significant,” Shaoul said. “If we don’t help them, we’re going to have a really prolonged and painful recovery.”