Portland PD's hands-off strategy during weekend skirmish draws praise, criticism

Mayor Ted Wheeler defended the decision, but others were shocked that police did not intervene


By Maxine Bernstein
oregonlive.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — The decision by Portland police to hold fast to a hands-off approach to political skirmishes that ended Sunday with gunfire drew widespread criticism as the city continues to struggle with its response to unrest.

Both far-right and far-left camps faced off with paintball guns, bats and chemical spray as they have in the past and proceeded to clash in a roving brawl in outer Northeast Portland despite advance exhortations by police and city leaders to remain peaceful.

Members of the Proud Boys shoot paintballs at Antifa during a clash between left- and right-wing demonstrators in Northeast Portland on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021.
Members of the Proud Boys shoot paintballs at Antifa during a clash between left- and right-wing demonstrators in Northeast Portland on Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. (Tribune News Service)

Several hours later, police intervened for the first time after an apparent exchange of gunshots in downtown not far from an electronic road sign that declared, “Hate Has No Place Here.”

Police arrested a man seen on video pointing his gun and firing. They said Monday they found evidence that someone else also had fired at the scene but have made no other arrests. Remarkably, no one was hurt.

The Police Bureau had halted days off for all officers in anticipation of possible violence Sunday but police supervisors directed them to observe the fights from afar even as motorists and pedestrians tried to avoid the fray.

Mayor Ted Wheeler called that the right strategy.

Wheeler said he believed the announcements he made as well as those from the police chief and other officials decrying hate and saying police wouldn’t get between opposing factions spurred the Proud Boys and their supporters to move their event out of Tom McCall Waterfront Park to a location east of Interstate 205.

Wheeler said the fights largely stayed among opponents.

“With strategic planning and oversight, the Portland Police Bureau and I mitigated confrontation between the two events and minimized the impact of the weekend’s events to Portlanders,” he said in a statement.

“In the past, these same groups have clashed with extremely violent and destructive results. This time, violence was contained to the groups of people who chose to engage in violence toward each other,” he said. “The community at large was not harmed and the broader public was protected. Property damage was minimal.’’

Reaction from commenters on social media and among community activists appeared to reflect ideology, saying police either allowed the Proud Boys or anarchists to provoke the fighting.

Others were shocked that police allowed hand-to-hand combat and a paintball shootout along a busy city avenue without any police intervention. Many were tired and disgusted by the continued violence between two groups that appear intent on duking it out in public.

“I am heartbroken and frustrated with the violence and destruction brought into the Parkrose Community and onto our High school grounds,” Parkrose High School Principal Molly Ouche wrote on Twitter.

“Counter protestors going to confront Proud Boys are NOT making things more safe, they’re actually making it worse,” Lakayana Drury wrote on Twitter. Drury is a member of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing, a group formed to oversee city compliance with a federal settlement on police use of force.

Brawlers fired paintball guns at each other and right-wing demonstrators smashed out windows of antifa activists’ trucks and vans on school property.

“Your city terrifies me,” wrote Tanny Martin, an out-of-town observer from Austin, Texas, on Twitter under her moniker “I expect Justice” during the violence. “These aren’t protests, they are planned violence. And your leaders just let them keep doing it, the police tacitly support it. Horrific.”

Some said they believe the lack of visible police presence emboldened the man to brazenly fire his loaded handgun across downtown’s Southwest Third Avenue later in the day.

Amy Herzfled-Copple, deputy director of programs and strategic initiatives at the Western States Center, and colleague Stephen Piggott, a center program analyst, called for a better and broader plan. The center is a Portland-based organization that monitors right-wing extremism.

“When there isn’t rule of law, when law enforcement doesn’t intervene to protect public safety, it only reinforces the lawlessness and fear that anti-democratic groups thrive on,” Herzfeld-Copple told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

RALLY’S MOVE SEEN AS WIN BY CITY

Interviews with police officials and mayor’s office staff indicate that Wheeler and police commanders were concerned that a large police showing would only bait left-wing anti-fascist activists and anarchists into fights with officers or lead to widespread vandalism downtown as it has many times in the past.

They decided they wouldn’t send officers into the midst of feuding demonstrators unless many people were getting seriously hurt or a “life safety emergency” occurred, the officials said.

They also sought to prevent a downtown brawl, so they said they were pleased when the Proud Boys moved their gathering from the downtown waterfront to an abandoned Kmart parking lot at Northeast 122nd Avenue and Sandy Boulevard.

Police said they kept eyes on the Northeast Portland scene after left-wing activists showed up and confronted Proud Boys and supporters, but they allowed what appeared to be willing participants to tussle on Parkrose High grounds and along 122nd Avenue with paintball guns, fireworks and chemical sprays.

Police incident commanders gathered at the Police Bureau’s training center to monitor Sunday’s gatherings and stationed officers nearby but out of sight.

Two leaders from the Argay Terrace Neighborhood Association said they weren’t surprised by the lack of police presence in outer Northeast Portland. Both asked that their names not be used because they were worried about their safety and the possibility of reprisals in the tense political atmosphere.

“If you’re east of 82nd, you’re just SOL as far as police protection,” one said.

The other said the city and police plan focused on protecting downtown while the neighborhood’s residents listened to the pops of paintball guns, the crack of fireworks and the circling of a police plane overhead.

The shift of the right-wing rally to Argay Terrace was akin to a high schooler saying, “Hey, come fight me behind the back bleachers behind the high school,” he said.

MAYOR APPLAUDS QUICK SHOOTING ARREST

The right-wing rally had been planned for the one-year anniversary of another violent clash between opponents on Aug. 22, 2020, when dueling gatherings took over downtown streets near the Justice Center.

This time, a call had gone out on social media for anti-fascists to turn out in force and about 300 people descended on the waterfront as the Proud Boys met miles away.

As the day wore on, a group of left-wing demonstrators remained in downtown and that’s when a 65-year-old man, Dennis G. Anderson, of Gresham, is accused of firing a gun east across Southwest Third Avenue.

Bullets struck parked cars and restaurant facades and sent bystanders scurrying for cover.

Wheeler applauded the police response to the shooting, noting the alleged gunman was arrested within three minutes of police learning of the shooting that was widely caught on video.

“Police monitored both events — at the waterfront downtown and at NE 122nd and Sandy — throughout the day,” he said. “Officers were within minutes of both locations, ready to take action immediately if the situation worsened and life safety was jeopardized.’’

Police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Allen said, “Officers cannot be in all places at all times” and that the shooting “has no confirmed connection to any gatherings or events.”

“It was, as tragic as it is, also one of multiple shootings that took place throughout the city” Sunday night, he said. “We know that gun violence is a significant problem, and PPB is doing its best with the resources it has to do our part to reduce it.’’

Police observed assaults and vandalism in Northeast Portland during the face-off and detectives will make arrests if they can establish probable cause, the mayor said.

“We will continue working with our legal teams and all City bureaus to limit the impact of these gatherings to our community. We will continue to investigate criminal behavior and will press charges when possible,” he said.

SOME OFFICERS CONCERNED ABOUT NEW LAW

Some officers said privately that police have been concerned that if they wade into fights and use batons or pepper spray, for example, they might face potential discipline or a criminal investigation. One officer has been indicted on an assault charge for an alleged unprovoked baton strike to a protester during a racial justice demonstration last summer.

The Portland city attorney’s office also has asked the Oregon attorney general to clarify a new law adopted by state lawmakers this past session that restricts police use of chemical agents.

House Bill 2928 says officers can’t use chemical agents for crowd control except when a riot is declared and when an officer “reasonably believes” that its use is “necessary to terminate and prevent” further riotous behavior.

Any “intentional violation” of the law constitutes the crime of second-degree official misconduct.

Police Chief Chuck Lovell said officers’ very presence often “makes a situation even more tense,’' in the case of the dueling demonstrations. He cited the bureau’s staffing shortage and legal restrictions as factors for the bureau’s decision not to send officers to separate the feuding groups.

Reiterating what he said before Sunday’s event, Lovell said in a videotaped message Monday night, “I would not place officers in an extraordinarily unsafe position between groups of people who are highly motivated to confront one another.”

Daryl Turner, a retired Portland officer now serving as executive director of the Portland Police Association, said “once you respond to one incident, police are worried about igniting another incident.”

The police also were absent two weeks ago when a street preacher from Canada drew right-wing supporters to the waterfront, anti-fascists faced off with them, knocked down the preacher’s sound system and violent clashes broke out. A right-wing protester in tactical gear later pointed what turned out to be an airsoft rifle at others on a downtown street. Police arrested the man days later on allegations of menacing and disorderly conduct.

This coming weekend, supporters of Aaron “Jay” Danielson are planning a vigil in Washougal. A self-described anti-fascist activist was accused of killing Danielson after a pro-Trump caravan on Aug. 29, 2020.

“The political atmosphere dictates our strategic plans,” Turner said. “We’ve seen these peaceful protests turn into riots and unlawful assemblies and our hands have been tied more and more by new laws or judge’s decisions, along with the political atmosphere set by some of our elected officials.”

Representatives from the Western States Center said Portland needs support to counter the problem from other leaders, and cities and towns.

“It’s time for city and county officials and communities outside Portland to take responsibility for countering such violence,” Herzfled-Copple said. “Portland isn’t an island. It requires support from all levels of government.’

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