Tear gas ban, new officer ID requirements among proposed Oregon bills

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
July 24, 2020 7:15 p.m.

Law enforcement officers in Oregon would be banned from using tear gas, constrained in how they could use other crowd-control weapons, and required to prominently display their names and ID numbers, under bills that might be considered in a forthcoming special session.

Those proposals are included in concepts released in recent days by the legislative committee convened to take up police reforms in the state. They come as police use of force in Portland has become a national focal point, with federal law enforcement officers freely deploying tear gas and other munitions against demonstrators night after night. Many of the same crowd-control tactics have been employed by Portland police in protests that are now stretching into their ninth week.

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Protesters use umbrellas to shield themselves from impact munitions after federal law enforcement deploy tear gas outside the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., Monday, July 20, 2020.

Protesters use umbrellas to shield themselves from impact munitions after federal law enforcement deploy tear gas outside the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., Monday, July 20, 2020.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

The drafts introduced by the Joint Committee on Transparent Policing and Use of Force Reform would have sway only on law enforcement with state and local agencies — not officers with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other agencies that have stepped up their presence in Portland since the beginning of July.

Even so, the proposals, if passed, would place powerful restrictions on how police present themselves, and the amount of force they are allowed to use on crowds and individuals. The legislative concepts include:

  • A bill that would ban law enforcement from using tear gas and similar "chemical incapacitants" on crowds. The bill would permit the use of pepper spray in cases where a mayor or sheriff declares a riot, and where notice is given to crowds. Additionally, crowd-control officers would be prohibited from using impact munitions like rubber bullets. They would only be allowed to use them against specific people who are posing a threat of injury or committing a felony. Acoustic weapons sometimes used for crowd control purposes would be limited to a "sound pressure level" of 105 decibels. Law enforcement officers who violated those restrictions could be sued.
  • The same bill, Legislative Concept 742, would ban crowd-control officers from using force against journalists, legal observers, medical personnel and people who are homeless. And while it would have no sway over federal officers, it requires that Oregon agencies "inform federal law enforcement agencies of the requirements of this section and attempt to enforce" them.
  • A bill that would place new restrictions on the types of uniforms Oregon law enforcement officers would wear. The proposal, known as Legislative Concept 743, would require police to wear a white or light blue shirt and navy blue pants. More typical uniforms of all black or navy blue clothing would be prohibited, except for specialized duties such as a SWAT team.
  • LC 743 would also require uniforms to display "the peace officer's last name, badge number or other identifying number and either the word 'police' or the words 'law enforcement.'" Those requirements have bearing in Portland, where officers policing protests have covered their name tags, instead displaying numbers whose meaning is only known to the police bureau. The Portland Police Bureau has said this step was taken to protect officers' personal information from being released online, possibly posing dangers to them or their families. The bill would also require that police vehicles clearly display a unique identification number.
  • A bill banning the use of chokeholds. That was a step lawmakers considered taking in a three-day special session in late June. They ultimately passed a law allowing chokeholds in cases where officers are authorized to use deadly force. Legislative Concept 745 would remove that exemption.
  • A bill that clarifies provisions of a new law requiring officers to report misconduct they witness by colleagues. The proposal would create authority for the Bureau of Labor and Industries to investigate instances of misconduct in some instances.

Collectively, the proposed bills would address many concerns police reform advocates raised after the Legislature passed a slate of policing bills in June, and also the on-the-ground tumult playing out nightly in Portland.

Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, one of the chairs of the policing committee, said Friday that he hadn't supported compromises to the new choke hold law legislators passed in June, and was committed to getting it strengthened.

"I'm firm," said Manning, who added that the holds are used too often on people of color. "No changes. Outright ban."  The law would still allow officers to use a choke hold to defend their own life or the lives of others, he said.

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Manning has similarly strong feelings on the proposal to alter police uniforms. A veteran of the Army, Manning says that police uniforms and equipment have grown too militaristic, and that that needs to change.

"I don't believe that police officers need to look like soldiers," he said.

The proposed requirement that police identify themselves by name and number at all times was deemed "a breath of non-spicy air" by Alan Kessler, a Portland attorney who has pushed back against the Portland Police Bureau's policy of allowing officers to cover their names. Kessler was rebuffed by both the police bureau and Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill when he requested a list of names connected to the special identification numbers officers have been displaying instead.

"The privileges that we give the police, such as: qualified immunity, exemptions from certain safety laws around weapons and motor vehicles, and the power to arrest, must come with accountability... ," Kessler said in a message. "Being able to confidently and quickly identify a police officer in the street or in a vehicle is necessary."

While the proposed ban on tear gas contains a provision that Oregon law enforcement "attempt to enforce" the law on federal authorities, Manning said he'll argue for stronger language. He believes that federal officers like those who have frequently used tear gas on Portland protesters should be required to obey state laws while not on federal property.

"They have to understand that they cannot come in and just violate state and municipal law under the guise of being part of the federal government," Manning said. "I understand that none of our officers are going to go on federal property and try to apprehend one of these rogue military, but the state will have a recourse to file a lawsuit."

On Friday afternoon, a federal judge rejected a request by Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to place a restraining order on some federal enforcement in Portland.

The bill concepts are the products of hearings the policing committee held over a course of weeks, in a frenetic, sometimes rushed, discussion of major policing issues.

The four proposals made public as of Friday morning are apparently not all the committee is preparing. In public agendas for hearings scheduled next week, lawmakers are also scheduled to take up bills addressing arbitration awards — a major topic of the June special session — along with police disciplinary records.

As occurred in June, it’s likely the proposals will be revised, potentially in major ways, before they’re taken up — potentially in another special session expected next month.

Michael Selvaggio, a lobbyist for rank-and-file police unions in the state, said Friday his clients were only just seeing many of the concepts for the first time, and were working out their positions.

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How Oregon Dungeness crab make the journey from sea to table.
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