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Portland police deputy chief decries violence by what he called ‘well-organized agitators’

Elk fountain on fire, July 1-2, 2020. (Courtesy of Portland Police Bureau/TNS)

Portland Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis appealed Wednesday to the community to speak out against what he called “six weeks of sustained, violent criminal activity” in the city by a “fairly well-organized agitator core.‘’

Davis played videos of some people setting fire to the downtown Justice Center on May 29 and others lobbing frozen water bottles or fireworks at officers over the past several weeks.

He said he doesn’t believe the city has ever before experienced this level of violence directed at police, the battering of public buildings including the bureau’s North Precinct and damage to businesses.

“Quite frankly, this is not sustainable,‘’ Davis said at a news briefing at police headquarters in the Justice Center as he offered an explanation for the police response to more than a month of demonstrations in Portland.

The Police Bureau has faced criticism from the governor, the speaker of the Oregon House, some City Council members, some residents and many protesters for using tear gas, pepper spray, foam-tipped rounds, stun grenades and other force at late-night rallies and marches. A federal judge has limited police use of tear gas or less-lethal weapons to only when officers consider people’s lives or safety at risk.

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After declaring multiple nights of riots last week and over the July Fourth holiday near the Justice Center and federal courthouse, Davis expressed frustration at the violence.

“There’s a very big difference between protests and the kind of mayhem” created most nights by a smaller group of people who have used the largely peaceful social justice movement as a “cover for criminal activity,” he said.

He spoke two hours after police union president, Officer Daryl Turner, also pushed back publicly against the criticism of how police handle protest. In addition, the city on Tuesday released up to 100 pages of defense in its response to the federal lawsuit over police tactics.

Wednesday marked the city’s 42nd consecutive day of gatherings supporting the Black Lives Matters movement and decrying the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and police brutality.

Davis discussed how the Police Bureau has shifted its tactics since someone on May 28 threw a Molotov cocktail outside the headquarters of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Southwest Portland and people on May 29 threw flares into the Justice Center setting fire to a records office. Some people have followed with an ongoing “cycle of nightly attacks focused on the Justice Center,‘’ he said.

The city and Multnomah County at first tried putting up a fence outside the Justice Center, which houses a county jail, courtrooms and the bureau’s Central Precinct, but it became a tense focal point, he said.

Officers also tried to retreat and remain out of sight, but people pulled off plywood covering windows, smashed Central Precinct windows, used a U-lock to try to barricade a precinct door, aimed green and red lasers at officers and vandalized security cameras, he said.

Officers haven’t had any luck communicating with the “agitators,‘’ he said.

“They will not engage us” and have responded “by escalating and escalating and escalating until we can no longer avoid getting involved” to protect the lives or safety of those inside precincts or the Justice Center, Davis said.

He spoke like a military field commander at times, describing how “agitators” have tended to use Chapman Square across from the Justice Center because it provides a “sufficient depth of field” and allows for a “depth of supply.‘’

He also presented a graphic that has been circulating on social media with the header “Protest Roles” and descriptions of “shield soldier,” “fire squad” and “barricader.” He acknowledged that he didn’t know its origin but said it describes what’s happening here, with people throwing commercial-grade fireworks toward officers as they stand behind peaceful demonstrators who have their hands up.

He said the “agitators” appear organized and well-equipped but he wouldn’t identify them as antifa as President Trump has done in sweeping general references to demonstrators nationwide. Davis called that “such a loaded term because it means different things to different people” and said only that the Police Bureau believes the Portland group is coordinated locally.

He said officers are adhering to state law and court-ordered restrictions on the use of tear gas. A new state law restricts officers using tear gas only after declaring a riot and only after giving sufficient warning.

But Portland police don’t control or have authority over federal officers, he said, such as those with the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Custom and Border Patrol or U.S. Immigration and Enforcement, who defend the adjacent Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse.

During the July Fourth weekend, federal officers moved into the crowd outside the federal courthouse downtown after authorities said a handful tried to barricade the front glass door, it shattered and a firework was thrown inside. Federal officers fired tear gas and pepper balls, moved into the crowd and arrested seven people, some accused of assault on a federal officer for allegedly aiming lasers at officers, according to court documents.

“They’re in charge of their assets, and we’re in charge of ours,‘’ Davis said. He acknowledged that federal officers follow their own rules separate from Portland police, and that may be “less than ideal.‘’

“It’s their job to protect federal facilities,‘’ he said.

He read the state’s definition of riot: six or more people engaged in tumultuous or violent conduct and intentionally or recklessly causing a grave risk of public harm. alarm.

The Police Bureau, he said, won’t be declaring more riots to use tear gas. He said it’s not something police leaders like to use but need it when they see a “sustained barrage of hazardous things thrown, fires, that kind of behavior.”

Their warnings beforehand are a signal for anyone who doesn’t want to be affected to move out of the area, Davis said.

“Certainly if anyone is exposed while waiting for a bus … that’s not an outcome that we ever want,” he said.

Motorists and some residents in North Portland reported feeling the effects of tear gas police used on June 30 to disperse a crowd outside the police union office on Lombard Street. Davis said officers waited but were getting pelted by bottles, rocks and fireworks that night.

The bureau tries to avoid the alternative — sending officers into a crowd – because of the higher risk of injuries, he said.

He noted a local Portland business estimate of $23 million in damage and lost revenue to businesses due to the civil unrest.

The city also faces more than a half-dozen lawsuits over police use of force at the demonstrations and injury to protesters. Police have arrested more than 200 people over the course of the protests.

“This is not just a Portland Police Bureau problem,” Davis said. “This is a local government and community problem.”

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© 2020 The Oregonian