ACLU Calls on Portland Police to Improve Policies Related to Protests

Portland’s crowd control policy leads to escalations of conflict

February 15, 2017 - The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (ACLU of Oregon) sent a letter to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) urging them to revise their policy related to crowd management and crowd control (Directive 635.10) in order to improve police interactions with peaceful protests. The group says PPB’s current policy has serious flaws and that additional clashes between protesters and police appear inevitable if the policy remains unchanged. 

“Portland’s protest policy should emphasize restraint, de-escalation, and the use of force only as a last resort to ensure public health, safety, and welfare,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director at the ACLU of Oregon. 

The ACLU of Oregon is concerned that the current policy conflates threats to public safety with constitutionally protected activity that may be perceived as disruptive or disorderly. Furthermore, the group urged new thinking around the use of riot gear and crowd control weapons and tactics.

“Current social science shows that the use of militarized police or police dressed in “hard gear” leads to escalation of conflict, not de-escalation,” said Katherine McDowell, vice president for legal affairs at the ACLU of Oregon. “Many of the Portland Police Bureau’s crowd control weapons and tactics pose significant and irreparable health consequences and should be employed only in very limited circumstances.”  

In addition to the ACLU of Oregon, other groups that monitor the use of police force against protesters, including National Lawyers Guild and Portland Copwatch, have communicated similar positions to PPB several times in recent months. Nevertheless, the ACLU of Oregon is hopeful that the PPB’s formal review of policy will yield significant improvement of the City’s positions regarding peaceful protest.

“More and more people are taking to the streets to express their disapproval of the inhumane policies of the Trump administration,” said dos Santos. “We hope this gives leaders a badly needed sense of urgency around amending police directives on crowd management and crowd control.”

The ACLU of Oregon's recommendations include:

Clarifying the limited circumstances under which police should be able to use military tactics and equipment, such as impact munitions and riot control agents, as well as limiting the uses of aggressive tactics such as containment, dispersal, and mass or selective arrests; 

Revising the ambiguous and broad use of the term “peace and order” and similar language in the definitions and throughout the directive;

Eliminating a procedure wherein police inquire about the “purpose” or “intent” of free speech activity with organizers and/or confer with potential targets of protests; 

Emphasizing that that the lack of a permit does not make a protest unlawful in the directives and updating the City of Portland’s onerous permitting process for unplanned or spontaneous events; and

A warning against the use of illegal profiling to determine whether a protest potentially poses a threat to the public health, safety, and welfare.

The ACLU of Oregon said they hope to be able to work with the City of Portland and Portland Police Bureau to make meaningful changes to the current policy.