Federal officials in Oregon called Friday for a deescalating of tensions in Portland in response to the mass resignation of the 50-member police protest squad after one of its officers was charged with assault.
Acting Oregon U.S. Attorney Scott Erik Asphaug and FBI Special Agent in Charge in Oregon Kieran L. Ramsey sought to address the concerns of both Portland police and demonstrators as the city grapples with protest unrest and a surge in violent crime.
The statement said in its entirety: “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.”
All 50 members of the Portland Police Bureau’s Rapid Response Team, who served voluntarily on the specialized unit, voted Wednesday to resign and disband the squad, although the department said they remain employed and will continue their regular duties.
The mass resignation came shortly after Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced Tuesday that an Rapid Response Team officer was charged with fourth-degree assault for striking a protester with his baton during an August riot, a move decried by the police union.
“Unfortunately, this decorated public servant has been caught in the crossfire of agenda-driven city leaders and a politicized criminal justice system,” said the Portland Police Association in a Tuesday post on Facebook.
Another officer is under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice for use of force during a protest, according to KOIN-TV.
The effective disbanding of the team, which handles Portland’s protest activity, forced Mayor Ted Wheeler to scramble Thursday to come up with enough officers to staff that night’s unrest.
“I have directed the Portland Police Bureau to prepare mobile field forces to respond to any public safety needs, including potential violence related to mass gatherings,” Mr. Wheeler said in a statement. “Also, I have spoken to Gov. [Kate] Brown, and the Oregon State Police is making members of its Mobile Response Team available on standby. We are also coordinating with other regional law enforcement partners.”
Meanwhile, city Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a former Democratic state legislator and police-defunding advocate, called for formally dismantling what she called the “rogue” response team, saying the “good ol’ boy network is crumbling.”
“Now we have an opportunity to show what crowd control and de-escalation in policing looks like without RRT – but it’s important to note that Council and the Mayor have the right and responsibility to decide what actions police take in the affirmative,” Ms. Hardesty said in a Thursday statement. “We should formally disband the RRT, but through Council action.”
Ms. Hardesty’s push comes with the city reeling from a dramatic spike in violent crime and ongoing Antifa street protests amid the exodus of more than 100 officers. A year ago, the council voted to cut $15 million from the police budget.
The police bureau logged 453 shootings from January through May, more than double the 200 shootings during the same period in 2020. There have been 42 homicides versus just nine at this time last year, KGW-TV reported.
Ms. Hardesty ticked off what she described as problems with the police department, including a report saying that only 18% of officers live in Portland.
“This need to change. We need community safety that leads with the progressive values of Portlanders at large,” she said. “I remain deeply concerned these RRT resignations are yet another example of a rogue paramilitary organization that is unaccountable to the elected officials and residents of Portland.”
Mr. Wheeler, who has been accused of failing to support officers in the politically charged protest climate, included a statement of support for police Thursday after holding a video conference call with response team members, the Oregonian reported.
“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.”