Police Chief Danielle Outlaw said Wednesday the city, police and community need “a better way” to address protest groups bent on brawling on Portland streets and called for laws that would bar masks worn by demonstrators, allow police to fully videotape protests and give authorities greater control of protests by groups with a history of violence.
“We have to do something differently,” Outlaw said, addressing reporters directly for the first time since violence in Saturday’s converging protests downtown drew national attention.
“There were entities that planned a brawl in the city of Portland and no one seems to be upset about that. … Entities came here for a fight. … I don’t even know what they were protesting against.”
Outlaw, speaking in the 14th floor Police Bureau conference room in a hastily called press conference, denied that the mayor has “handcuffed” the police response to demonstrations in any way, as the police union president alleged this week. Mayor Ted Wheeler serves as the city’s police commissioner.
The chief again complimented officers for their response to the roving demonstrations by three groups, including anti-fascists, Proud Boys and supporters of the #HimToo movement. Three men were assaulted, including conservative writer Andy Ngo, and police arrested three people.
“We don’t want anyone to be hurt at all,” Outlaw said. “But it could have been a lot worse.”
She spoke of how the bureau’s reduced staff with 128 officer vacancies and the lack of support from outside agencies — Washington County, Clackamas and Clark County sheriff’s offices have refused to come into the city to assist police with protest coverage — has constrained her agency’s ability to respond quickly to outbreaks of violence during large, fluid protests.
Portland police often have to react, instead of being proactive in their response, to protests without proper permits, Outlaw said. The bureau aimed Saturday to separate the competing groups and directed officers to move in as a team “whenever we can do it safely,” she said.
Deputy Chief Jami Resch, who also attended the news conference, added, “You have to be careful you don’t create a flashpoint.”
If officers are outnumbered when violence breaks out, though, it doesn’t make sense to send in officers who could be injured, Outlaw said.
“There are barriers to what we’re doing because we don’t have strategic resources to get ahead of these things,” the chief said. “Every demonstration we’ve responded to is reactionary. … We need strategic resources to get ahead of this before it starts so it’s not even allowed to happen in the first place.”
She called for a law that would bar the wearing of masks by demonstrators in the commission of crimes.
“We cannot allow people to continue to use the guise of free speech to commit a crime,” Outlaw said. “A lot of people are emboldened because they know they can’t be identified.”
About 15 states, and some counties and cities, have adopted some type of anti-mask law. Most ban the wearing of masks in a way that intimidates others. Opponents have argued that such restrictions deprive people of anonymity they seek to express their views or that it couldn’t be enforced simply for political protests versus other displays, such as for Halloween celebrations or parties.
In New York, it’s illegal to congregate in public with two or more people while each wearing a mask or any face covering that disguises identity. The law has existed since 1845, when tenant farmers, in response to a lowering of wheat prices, dressed up as “Indians” and covered their faces with masks to attack the police anonymously, according to The New York History Blog. There are exceptions for masquerades and other entertainment events.
The American Civil Liberties of Oregon would object to an anti-mask law in the city because it doubts such a law could be enforced in a constitutional manner, said Sarah Armstrong, a spokeswoman for the group.
“A policy that prohibits wearing a mask to a protest will have police focusing on the wrong issue. Behavior is the issue, not the mask,” she said. “It could be argued that the mask is an important symbolic part of a protester’s message…There are many legitimate reasons people wear ‘masks,’ including political and religious reasons.”
Outlaw also pushed for changes in the law that would allow police to continually record protests, instead of only when crimes are committed, which she said slows police investigations because they only have snapshots of what occurred. Civil rights activists in Portland and Oregon, though, have objected to police videotaping people during their exercise of free speech.
Outlaw also reiterated her call for a local ordinance that would allow police to better control the time, place and manner of demonstrations by groups with a violent history. The mayor attempted to pass such an ordinance last year, but the council rejected it.
The mayor’s spokeswoman Eileen Park said, “We will be engaging with community leaders to have more discussions on this. Nothing planned yet.”
As for the anti-mask proposal, Commissioner Amanda Fritz’s chief of staff, Tim Crail, said, “We looked into it previously and the constitutional free speech issues are difficult to overcome, at least in Oregon.”
Fritz is “open to a conversation about the advantages and difficulties created with a mask ordinance, but cannot say at this point whether she would support a ban on masks for protests.”
Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty, Chloe Eudaly and Nick Fish weren’t immediately available for comment.
Outlaw briefly addressed the controversy surrounding the bureau’s message over Twitter, warning people that the bureau had information that milkshakes thrown during Saturday’s demonstrations were laced with cement.
She said a lieutenant at the scene suspected, through the consistency and smell of the milkshake substance being thrown, that there may have been a dry cement material included. The bureau put that out “in good faith,” she said. The group that brought the milkshake substance said only soy milk and coconut ice cream were the ingredients.
“As we get information, we want to alert the public,” Outlaw said. “There were no ill intentions whatsoever.”
Outlaw expressed frustration that she’s not hearing outrage in the community instead about the violent groups that keep returning to cause melees in the city’s core and are emboldened, already planning their next one in August.
“Who thinks this is OK?” she asked.
“We are a learning organization and we don’t want to continually step into the same events if we know they don’t work,” the chief added.
Oregonian Staff Writer Gordon R. Friedman contributed to this story.
— Maxine Bernstein
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