As calls mount for the Portland police officers to end the use of tear gas, Portland Police Bureau leaders said Thursday that they believe the chemical is likely officers’ best option to disperse demonstrators who the police determine have turned violent.
Two Portland city commissioners called for a ban on tear gas earlier this week after police officers used the gas on protesters during demonstrations against racial injustice and police violence.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said she went to bed in tears after seeing the police response, and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she found what she heard about police behavior “completely unacceptable.”
In the aftermath, civil rights groups, including Oregon’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Oregon Justice Resource Center, called for an immediate end to use of what police call "CS gas."
Asked about the gas Thursday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler turned the question over to Deputy Chief Chris Davis rather than answer himself. Davis said police believe gas is likely the safest way to disperse a crowd that has met a certain threshold of violence.
“The whole idea of that tool is to just get people out of the area that they are occupying,” Davis said at a the press conference, a now-daily event for city leaders to discuss the nightly protests. “And as you will read in our policy, it requires a fairly significant level of violence from the crowd. That objective is a lot safer, actually, to accomplish with the use of something like CS [gas].”
A powder that causes extreme burning in the eyes, nose and throat, CS gas is one of the most common types of tear gas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Finding an alternative to it, Davis said, would mean looking at “higher levels of force” that the bureau wants to avoid.
Davis outlined two main steps officers must take to deploy the gas: they must issue a warning in advance and they must ensure there’s a direction for people to go. He also said officers have been careful to make sure that if they have to use the gas, they avoid people “who aren’t part of the problem that has necessitated the use of that tool.”
Critics have contended that gas use is inherently indiscriminate, particularly in the way it was used by police on Tuesday evening. Videos of the gathering show police shooting tear gas canisters into crowds of hundreds of people.
Police Chief Jami Resch has said officers were provoked by demonstrators tampering with a fence erected to block access to the Multnomah County Justice Center and throwing objects at the police. Over the course of the night, these objects included fireworks, bottles and ball bearings. Officers continued to fire tear gas and flash bangs for extended periods as they scattered crowds.
Resch had said the decision to deploy the gas is up to incident commanders, who usually make the call “to protect life and safety.”
On Wednesday night, another evening in which thousands of people gathered downtown, there was no need, Davis said.
“We were able to get through the night without being required to use tear gas,” he said, adding that the crowd dispersed around 4 a.m.
On Thursday, ProPublica published an article warning that the use of the tear gas on Americans could have long-term health consequences in any situation: CS gas, the article notes, activates the same pain receptor as the Japanese horseradish wasabi — only it is 100,000 times stronger.
Those consequences could be more dire in a global health pandemic.
Dr. Melissa Belli, who works at Beaverton’s Virginia Garcia Wellness Center, said she’s been watching protests in Oregon with concern. She said she admires the protesters risking their health to demand change, but is concerned about police officers responding “as if we weren’t in this pandemic.”
“Whenever you're exposed to tear gas, the person’s going to start coughing and sneezing, and they’re going to spit, and they’re going to feel like they’re choking,” Belli said. “They can barely walk; they’re going to try and hold onto something.”
“It’s really, really a disaster," she said. "It's not only going to affect the people at march but it’s going to affect the whole community. It’s just going to have a domino effect in the way of the spread of the disease.”
Belli has begun a petition demanding a moratorium on the use of tear gas during the pandemic and has gathered over 1,000 signatures.
Asked about the potential health risks, Davis said the bureau would “gladly stop using CS gas, as long as we can still protect public safety.”