Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw made headlines this week with a series of comments critical of left-leaning protesters.
Outlaw’s comments came as the city’s Independent Police Review is investigating at least seven different incidents of possible police misconduct at an Aug 4. rally in downtown Portland held by right-wing groups.
And the same group of protesters Outlaw is publicly criticizing may be key witnesses in IPR's ongoing investigations — witnesses investigators say they've struggled to contact.
In an interview with conservative talk show host Lars Larson this week, Outlaw made a number of dismissive comments regarding counter-demonstrators who have accused her bureau of deliberately targeting them with excessive force.
Outlaw compared the left-wing protesters to children who lost a schoolyard fight and left to "whine and complain."
When prompted by Larson, Outlaw declined to call antifa a terrorist organization. But she did say antifa showed up at the protest with the intent to “cause physical harm and confrontation.”
She also described the group as “wearing flak jackets and bringing guns and wearing helmets.” In the lead up to the event, it was right-wing groups – not antifa – that had publicly declared their intent to carry guns at the rally. Several members of those groups arrived at the protest wearing tactical vests, helmets and other paraphernalia.
“I tell people, we hold ourselves accountable,” Outlaw said. “If we did something wrong, we own it. I own it. We'll take it. Because we don't want to continue on doing the same thing over and over again if we can find ways to improve moving forward. But at what point is there accountability to not only acknowledge the law and say that lawlessness is not OK?”
Outlaw’s comments are a departure from previous chiefs, who have been more tight-lipped about controversial incidents involving allegations of police misconduct.
“I was glad to see Chief Outlaw is willing to step up, and offer her opinion,” said Kristin Malone, an attorney who has chaired the city’s Civilian Review Committee, a volunteer board that reviews officer misconduct.
Malone spoke in her capacity as a private individual familiar with the bureau’s history, and not on behalf of the CRC.
Malone said in the past, bureau leaders’ reluctance to publicly discuss incidents like the Aug. 4 rally has left the public in the dark for months at a time on the bureau’s position.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who will take objection to what she said, but at least there is a voice from the police bureau that is part of the conversation,” she said.
Malone added that Outlaw’s comments come with a possible downside.
“The reason people have felt like they shouldn’t comment is because you don’t want to give people a sense that there is a pre-judgment made, or that the bureau is reaching a conclusion before they have all the facts,” she said.
Outlaw’s comments have outraged left-wing counter-protesters, even as she insists the police bureau is fully committed to reviewing officers’ use of flash-bangs and other crowd control weapons.
Outlaw directed the Professional Standards Division to begin an internal review of PPB's tactics at the Aug. 4 protest and whether police actions were within policy, law and procedure.
Mayor Ted Wheeler oversees Chief Outlaw in his capacity as Police Commissioner. A spokesman for Wheeler said he would not comment on whether Outlaw’s recent public statements about Antifa undermine the credibility of the Bureau’s review of the incident.
In addition to the bureau’s review, the Independent Police Review has opened seven investigations into possible misconduct in response to citizen complaints.
IPR, which is a division of the city auditor's office, provides civilian oversight of the police bureau.
The agency is struggling, however, to make progress on the most high-profile case: a protester allegedly hit in the head by a flash-bang who suffered a traumatic brain injury. He hasn’t yet made contact with investigators.
“We haven’t been able to talk to the person who was impacted by the alleged misconduct," said Constantin Severe with the city's Independent Police Review. "We’re working off witness statements and video from community media and the police bureau."
The person in question has spoken to several media outlets about his injuries.
“For us to be able to do a good investigation, we will need to talk to this individual,” Severe said. “It’s important for the process for them to reach out and talk to one of our investigators.”
While IPR conducts independent investigations and publishes its findings, Outlaw and the City Council have the ultimate authority in disputed misconduct cases to determine whether or not officers will face disciplinary action.
In a City Council meeting Wednesday, Wheeler suggested the city may pursue a third, “outside” investigation into the police bureau’s crowd control tactics.
Wheeler’s spokeswoman, Sophia June, said the mayor is discussing the possibility of an outside review with Outlaw.
June referred questions about who would conduct such an outside investigation to the Police Bureau.