Portland crowd control unit leader: Officers can’t serve under ‘the extreme liability’

Portland's Rapid Response Team made headlines last week when, in an unprecedented move, its members all voted to resign

By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — The commander of Portland’s Rapid Response Team had called a meeting of the specialized unit’s approximately 50 officers at the Penumbra Kelly Building in Southeast Portland Wednesday night to hear their concerns.

Just over two hours later, all the officers present voted to resign from the specialized crowd control team.

They cited a host of factors: a lack of clear direction from the chief’s office, changing interpretations of police force directives and policies, officer safety concerns and what they called inconsistent internal reviews of officers’ actions.

Though the team members are hopeful that some of these issues can be resolved, they believe the problems have become “so severe, they cannot continue to serve on the team under the extreme liability they are currently facing,” wrote Lt. Jacob Clark, commander of the Rapid Response Team, in a memo to Police Chief Chuck Lovell Thursday morning obtained by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The unprecedented move by about 50 officers, detectives and sergeants to disband their own team came a day after a team member, Officer Corey Budworth, was indicted on a fourth-degree assault charge, accused of striking a woman in the head with a baton who he’d already knocked to the ground during a protest last summer near the Multnomah Building.

The discussion during the evening gathering of Rapid Response Team members was described as “robust,” and “professional,” but the actual decision to resign from the voluntary team membership was characterized as “very emotional.”

Though the officers didn’t take a vote of no confidence in police brass, political leaders or the county’s top prosecutor, the memo reads like one.

“The team strongly feels there has been a significant lack of leadership from the Chiefs Office, City Hall, local political leaders, and the District Attorney’s Office,” it said.

“The team recognizes leadership is complicated and multi-faceted. However, they believe there has been little clear guidance offered to the team,” Clark wrote. “The lack of clear guidance has led to the team to lose confidence in their decision making, and fearful of later repercussions which they are currently experiencing in the form of delayed internal investigations.”

The team members later met via Zoom video conference directly with Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner. Lovell, who is out of state in Florida attending training, dialed into the video conference as well.

Much of the memo describes officers’ complaints that aren’t new, but were raised to the chief’s office last fall.

The specialized Portland police team has been on the front lines at social justice protests held in the city after the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and pinned him to the pavement.

Many demonstrations devolved into clashes with officers late at night, and at times ended with vandalism, property damage and fires. The crowd control team was the unit often directed to disperse crowds after police declared unlawful assemblies or riots.

The team’s use of force has led to multiple civil lawsuits in state and federal court, sanctions from a judge and now an indictment.

The team members cited concerns about officers injured during protests over the past year, the restrictions federal judges and the mayor put on their use of force tactics, changing interpretations of the bureau’s directives governing their use of force and crowd management tactics, greater scrutiny of officers actions than that of those causing property damage, setting fires or throwing objects at officers during protest coverage, a lack of confidence in the city attorney’s office ability to defend their actions and insufficient back-up from outside law enforcement agencies.

“The team strongly believes in the oath they originally took to protect and serve. They believe political leadership in this city allowed our community members to be victimized through criminal action, because the political leaders supported the message of the demonstrators,” the memo said. “The team feels this approach was unfair to the victims of the crimes committed, and overrode the rule of law in this city.”

The team also expressed dismay that the Police Bureau was ordered to halt their live-streaming video of the nightly demonstrations last year. Instead, they said, officers are being hauled into internal affairs inquires “based almost entirely on video submitted by the demonstrators themselves.”

The use of live-streaming video was halted as a result of a judge’s temporary restraining order. Yet, the team argued that the city attorney’s office had misinterpreted the judge’s order.

“That overly restrictive and risk averse decision protected the city while placing team members in a position of increased individual risk,” the memo said.

The team also cited lack of consistent review of officers’ actions by the bureau’s internal affairs decision, the Multnomah County district attorney’s office dismissal of dozens of cases against protesters they arrested the physical and mental toll of being out on the protest lines night after night.

The commander did not participate in the team discussion and vote but wrote that he supported the team’s decision to resign. He said the mass resignation became effective at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

“The decision for the entire team to resign was not an easy one,” he wrote. “It is my hope, as well as the team’s hope, that these issues can be properly resolved so the team can go back to serving the City of Portland as proud members of RRT.”

The team’s resignation drew a mix of responses from community members, city officials and other law enforcement.

On Friday, Oregon’s U.S. Attorney and the lead FBI agent for the state issued a joint statement. They urged “community members to join law enforcement in helping to ensure all future demonstrations remain peaceful and inclusive.”

“Communities across the nation have endured many challenges over the past year as they attempt to address racial inequities in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. In Portland, those challenges included large and sometimes violent demonstrations that strained our local resources and repeatedly placed officers in the difficult position of policing large and sometimes hostile crowds. As law enforcement officials, we recognize that community members and law enforcement officers alike are responsible for their conduct and that our judicial system is designed to address wrongdoing equally, whether by community members or law enforcement officers.

Like all Portlanders, we are proud of our community’s long history of peaceful civic activism and free speech. We are also proud of the federal, state, and local law enforcement officers who continue to respond to Portland demonstrations to ensure all community members can exercise their First Amendment rights safely and without the threat of violence. We urge community members to join law enforcement in helping to ensure all future demonstrations remain peaceful and inclusive.”

Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association that represents the officers, sergeants and detectives who quit the crowd control team, said in a statement Friday: “If the Rapid Response Team members’ resignation has highlighted anything, it’s that the priorities of our elected officials have failed.”

He decried what he called “roving gangs of black-clad rioters” that he said “do not speak for the hundreds of thousands of residents and business owners of Portland who want a safe and clean city.”

Mac Smiff, a Black Lives Matter organizer and protester, said the resignation of the team suggested that the police system “does not appear to want to be reformed.”

“That they made this high-profile yet low-impact decision to protest the investigations of officers caught abusing their power, however, makes it clear that the bad apples have the sympathies of the bunch.”

On Thursday, the mayor reached out to Gov. Kate Brown and said the Oregon State Police will have its mobile response team on standby to assist Portland police if protests occur in the next few nights. The mayor also discussed backup support from the Oregon National Guard if necessary, according to his office.

Portland patrol officers assigned to mobile field forces also likely will be called into action, and the chief can order the Rapid Response Team officers to provide crowd control as well. An incident management team will be activated Thursday night and likely through the weekend should any problems arise, he said.

The mayor, in a statement late Thursday, said: “I want to acknowledge the toll this past year has taken on them and their families—they have worked long hours under difficult conditions,” he said. “I personally heard from some of them today, and I appreciate their willingness to share their concerns about managing the many public gatherings that often were violent and destructive. It is my expectation, and the community’s expectation, that the City remains committed to public safety and effective police oversight. City leaders will continue working in partnership with Portlanders, community organizations and police leadership to reform our community safety system.’'

Email mbernstein@oregonian.com; 503-221-8212

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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