Portland’s police chief has ordered her professional standards division to review police use of force during a far-right “free speech” rally and counter-protest on Saturday.
A heavy police presence formed a barrier between the far-right groups — Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys — and the counter protesters who confronted them, including antifa.
Officers were largely effective in keeping the two groups from brawling in the street, but have since faced criticism for deploying pepper spray, rubber balls and flash grenades against counter protesters.
The Guardian reported that one woman sustained chemical burns, possibly from a flash grenade, while photos circulating on social media show another protester with a head injury.
Portland Police Bureau Chief Danielle Outlaw spoke to OPB about how police approached the protest and the perception that officers treated the two sides differently.
Below is her unedited conversation with OPB’s Dave Miller:
Q&A with Police Chief Danielle Outlaw
Dave Miller: I know that you’ve called for complaints about excessive use of force to be investigated, but at this point what is your take on how, overall, police handled the rally?
Chief Danielle Outlaw: I’m actually very proud of the work that the officers put in. We didn’t know exactly what we would have. There was a lot of build up, from the media, as to what people expected the event to be.
I think it was the Southern Law Poverty Center that told the Washington Post that it could possibly be the next Charlottesville.
I had residents send me emails out of fear and concern of what could happen on Saturday, and when I say I’m proud of the work that the officers put in, it’s because of what didn’t happen on Saturday.
Everything that was anticipated … with the very clear intent of what people wanted to do, with the level of confrontation and violence that they were expecting to bring, that did not occur. The officers were there and they prevented all of that from happening.
Miller: Yesterday, as I mentioned, you acknowledged that there had been reports of injuries due to the use of force by officers, you said that the Independent Police Review was on hand and they would handle any of those complaints that came in. Have any complaints so far been lodged?
Outlaw: Yesterday, I learned of a complaint of someone possibly being injured from one of the devices that we used.
We still haven’t had an opportunity to speak with that person or even get a name from that person. Personally, we sent staff around to the local hospitals, to find out if there were any injuries that had been sustained from the protest. So far, there may be one. Everything else thus far has been a result of fighting among each other.
We are aware of some and we’ve made ourselves available to accept any complaints, if there are additional ones.
Miller: What do you make of the basic narrative — I saw this in responses to what happened this past weekend, as well as many other events of the last year —the basic narrative is when these rallies happen, it seems some people say that police are defending far-right groups and cracking down on anti-fascist groups?
Outlaw: I think that’s ridiculous. We are neutral. Regardless, let me tell you flat out, I don’t favor anyone who supposedly favors white supremacists, and I don’t favor anyone who comes to bring violence and physical harm to any person or place or property. Because of that, we have to remain neutral. We are there to ensure safety for everyone involved. We don’t get to pick sides.
Miller: But why does it seem that when police are shooting off flash bang grenades or running into crowds with batons, that more often then not it’s the Antifa group, or various versions of counter-protesters that are the recipients of police use of force?
Outlaw: I was there on Saturday. I personally saw, whether they were fireworks, M-80s, explosives, I saw those being set of by the anti-racist groups. The projectiles — pieces of cement that are large as grapefruit, pieces of brick, broken glass bottles — all of that was not coming from the Patriot Prayer side at that time.
We focus our attentions on behaviors. When you see people coming, with the intent, after we’ve given the order to disperse. Those who remained, usually what we see is a large amount of people peel off after we give dispersal orders. But people remained, which shows us they had the intent to be there to cause harm.
Miller: How much time do you think there should be between that order, and police cracking down in some way, using force of some kind?
Outlaw: I think there should be a reasonable amount of time. It really depends on what’s going on at that time. People should also not only have a reasonable amount of time to leave but they should have a way to get out.
Miller: That’s in official city training and police protocol.
Outlaw: …Which is what they had on Saturday.
Miller: Willamette Week reporter Katie Shepherd tweeted out two pictures of the training descriptions for the use of these kind of devices. She noted that Portland Police directives on flash bangs, that there is some guidance on when to use these devices, but not how — and that there are no stated restrictions on aiming them at people. Should that change? Should the police develop more explicit directions on how to use these devices?
Outlaw: I shared this when we debriefed after the event was over. We don’t know what we don’t know. And we seek to improve after each and every event. That’s the whole purpose. We take lessons learned from each event, and we make sure that we incorporate that moving forward so we can avoid any pitfalls moving forward. We are an introspective organization.
And if that’s something that needs to take place, because with these types of tools that we use, there are very specific ways that they’re supposed to be used. If they weren’t used in that way and we need to go back and make sure that our policy dictates that, then obviously that’s something that we’ll take a look at.
Miller: You have the luxury, if that’s the way to put it, of a lot of data points to look at from more than a year now of these incidents. What have you taken personally from the most recent one? It’s only been a couple days, but are there things you feel like you learned based on what happened Saturday that you will apply to the next one? Because it’s pretty likely there will be another event like this.
Outlaw: Oh yeah. And it’s still really early. This just happened on Saturday. We’re still getting information in, after the fact. But I will say, one of the things that we did differently this time that helped us, and I want us to focus us on what did not occur and …
Miller: Can I ask you did it surprise you what did not occur? It seems like you were blaming the media a little bit for amping this up, the fear that this would be another Charlottesville. Did you yourself think that it might be?
Outlaw: No, and I want to be clear, I’m not blaming the media. We didn’t hype it up, we asked people not to come. But it was hyped. It is what it is. So I’m not placing blame anywhere, but because of that information that was put out there, we were very careful in our planning and how we prepared for it.
Miller: What’s an example of that, the planning you did or the orders you gave to officers or commanders based on the way people had been talking about this leading up to it?
Outlaw: Our actions were dictated by tone. It was very, it was very progressive. When you first saw us out there, there were officers out there. We were going to have a visible presence from jump. We had already days before established, we fenced off areas. Because our intent the whole time was to make sure that each side was separated. Our entire goal was to keep them separated.
Miller: That was the No. 1 goal, was don’t have a brawl in the streets again?
Outlaw: Yes, and to not allow them to make contact with each other from jump. It didn’t work out the way we initially planned because everyone did not stay inside of the railing that we provided.
OK, that was fine. But now we had to escalate from the railings. So people saw a lot of police out there on bicycles. Not in hard gear, right away, but they saw us on bicycles. Again all dictated by the tone.
Once the projectiles were being thrown, safety was clearly an issue. We had declared a civil disobedience. Now, you see the resources come in, with the harder squads. We asked for resources from Oregon State Patrol, Multnomah County was there as well in hard gear.
So again, our response was dictated by what we were dealing with, but the whole plan was to keep people separate. If that meant us walking alongside some of these groups to keep them separated, that was what we had to do.
Miller: It wasn’t just walking though. After the order was given to disperse, and after some of the crowd dispersal devices were used, there was actually a video I saw on social media, shot by the former Portland Mercury reporter Doug Brown, now at the ACLU, and it shows police essentially running into a crowd with their batons in front of them, yelling at people to move west.
The people seem to be complying. It’s a pretty chaotic video. But they also seem to be confused. It happens very quickly.
Is that standard procedure, to essentially bum rush people as you’re telling people to move along?
Outlaw: It depends. I haven’t had a chance to see that particular video yet, but I’m familiar with the one you’re referencing.
It goes back to your question about, how long do you give somebody to leave when you ask them to move? I will say this: There have been reporters that acknowledged that they heard a dispersal order and they chose to stay. Once a dispersal order is given, you have to leave, or at least look like you’re leaving, or make some attempt to leave. You don’t get to stick around, and look, that means everybody.
Miller: I should say that the guy who shot this video, Doug Brown, he was moving backwards the entire time, and being repeatedly hit by police running at him with batons.
Outlaw: Like I said, I haven’t seen it and we’re still gathering information. All of this will be investigated. I don’t have all the answers today. We don’t know what we don’t know. But we are open to feedback and criticism, and making sure that we don’t continue to repeat things that happened in the past.
Miller: Do you think that there’s anything that the police could have done differently to prevent what ended up happening from happening? Do you think there’s anything that police could have done to prevent that use of force by police?
Outlaw: I don’t know. Because the question is this: You have folks that came, thousands of people that came with the very clear intention of causing harm. I can’t control what they think and what they want to do.
Miller: Is it fair to say that thousands came with the intent to cause harm …
Outlaw: Hold on
Miller: …or they came prepared potentially to do that?
Chief Outlaw: Hold on, most folks, when they say we’re here to exercise our First Amendment right to assemble and free speech, right, that’s a little different than coming in flak jackets with guns and with vests and helmets. A little different.
Then, once given the order to disperse, and you still remain — to me, that proves more intent. After there has been clear danger, clear violence. And I’m not just talking about against police officers, I’m talking about others in the area, I’m talking about the community at large. We’re not just talking about officer safety. We’re talking about safety of everybody.
We said, you have to leave, it’s a civil disobedience. Like I said, I personally saw people setting off these explosives, we thought there were trees on fire, the whole nine. And they still chose to remain after that?
That shows that there’s an intent there. Regardless of what you initially came for, you were there to do something. You were there for a confrontation, or you were prepared to be in a confrontation, and you chose not to leave, when we asked you to do it.