The first panel at PERF’s Town Hall Meeting on Tuesday discussed this summer’s demonstrations and the police response. The protests and demonstrations in 2020 were dramatically different from those of previous years and have raised new issues.

The four experts who participated in the conversation were:

  • Portland, OR Deputy Chief Chris Davis
  • Retired Kalamazoo, MI Public Safety Chief Karianne Thomas
  • Brian Castner, Senior Advisor on Weapons and Military Operations, Amnesty International
  • Arizona State University Professor Ed Maguire

Excerpts from each panelists’ comments are below. Click here to view the entire Town Hall Meeting. The discussion about demonstrations begins at 6:00.


Portland, OR Deputy Chief Chris Davis

We actually had over 100 nights [of demonstrations] in a row. It’s tapered off now to the point where we’re having demonstrations more like every other day or every few days.

Portland has always had a pretty robust protest culture. Before 2020 we managed roughly 300 protest events a year in this city, the vast majority of which didn’t even require police resources. So what we’ve seen over the summer really is unprecedented for our city. We’ve never seen violence on this scale before, and especially not sustained like this. It really has been taxing on the organization, obviously, in terms of our resources and our personnel.

We’ve had protests that deteriorated and got out of hand in the past, but the really new things that we’re seeing are the widespread property damage [and] the mass theft. If you go through downtown Portland right now, half of it is still boarded up. We’ve never seen anything like that.

The use of incendiary and explosive devices against law enforcement is not something we’ve ever seen before either. And there’s is a level of organization that we’re seeing behind this that is, I keep using the word, unprecedented.

We really had limited options, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen the use of crowd control munitions like we’ve seen. We don’t believe that the Portland Police Bureau ever used CS gas before the rioting that we had in 2016 after the election, and then we hadn’t [used it] since then.

It’s very challenging, because these groups are not homogeneous. You have a whole spectrum of motives in these groups, from people who are just there to see what’s going on and aren’t even necessarily interested in whatever the cause is, to some people who are there to engage in lawful First Amendment activity, all the way up to a really organized and highly motivated group that’s there to commit violent criminal acts and property damage.

So we’re put in a Catch-22, because for us to go in and arrest the people throwing the incendiary devices, you have to get through this group of people who are just there and won’t get out of the way. So your options are to use a whole lot of force to try and get through to people who are committing the more serious violent acts, or to give as many dispersal orders as you can and give people time to leave who are inclined to leave and disperse the whole crowd using crowd-control munitions.

But at some point the situation gets so violent and so dangerous for our police officers that CS really becomes one of the least bad options.


Retired Kalamazoo, MI Public Safety Chief Karianne Thomas

Our communication internally was fine. It was the communication with our community members, with our elected officials, that was never fast enough to get ahead of the narrative that other people were creating. As we look back on that, we could never get ahead of what actually happened [and] why we were doing what we were doing.

In many cases, our elected officials knew what the plan was ahead of time. But as soon as that Monday morning quarterbacking starts after every single incident, it turns into something else we can never fully recover from. And even [with] multiple press conferences and multiple explanations, we just never got ahead of it.

We heard early on in May/June – when we had to use tear gas, when we had call the National Guard in a peacekeeping manner, when we had to set a curfew – that our community, a mid-sized city of 80,000, didn’t want to see that response again, and we were listening to that. We had 8, 9, 10 protests, and the Proud Boys came to town. And then when we did not use tear gas [and] did not call the National Guard, they were at our headquarters protesting because they felt we didn’t use the [higher] response level with the Proud Boys.


Brian Castner, Senior Crisis Advisor on Weapons and Military Operations, Amnesty International

We published [a report on police use of force] in mid-June, soon after George Floyd died and those initial protests. In that report we found 125 cases of excessive police violence in 40 states and the District of Columbia. This was big cities, small cities, rural, urban, red states, blue states, all over the country. So this was a very widespread pattern.

It is different than a hundred-and-something days of riots and protests in Portland, and I agree that that is an extremely challenging situation. When you have the same people every night, they know the officers, the officers know them, [and] there’s not really a protest going on. It’s going very quickly to violence.

At Amnesty International we have not called for a ban on tear gas, and it’s because there are very limited circumstances where it’s appropriate for use. And when the entire crowd is violent and the only way to safely disperse that crowd is tear gas, that’s why we’ve never called for a ban.

If there is a large number of people protesting and a few of them are throwing bricks or acting violent, it’s the police’s responsibility to identify those people and arrest them or remove them [to] stop the violence. When the entire crowd is effectively punished – the crowd is effectively exercising their First Amendment rights [and] it’s only a few that are not – but you use gas on all of them, that’s both indiscriminate and disproportionate. You should identify the specific people that are causing the problem.


Arizona State University Professor Ed Maguire

This summer was definitely different than what we’ve seen for decades now, at least on a national scale.

As I looked around the country over the summer, I saw a lot of tactics not necessarily wrapped in a coherent strategy. My challenge for police leaders all over the world in thinking about how to handle not just protests, but any type of a crowd event, is to be able to answer the question, “What’s your strategy?” In my conversations with police leaders, certainly in the U.S., I think a lot of times there’s not necessarily a strategy, there’s just a profusion of tactics. And the tactics often involve the use of less-lethal munitions and chemical agents and so forth.

Anytime we want to develop a strategy, we need to think about our goals and objectives. I would submit that one of our goals or objectives here should be to minimize injury and death, whether that’s police officers or protesters. Another one of our objectives ought to be honoring the Constitution. We need to think about developing strategies that accomplish those objectives, and I think a lot of times we just don’t have a strategy. A protest shows up, all of a sudden people are behaving in an unruly or disorderly manner, and out come the less-lethals.

We see a lot of instances of police trying to communicate with crowds with bullhorns that don’t reach the back of the crowd. So [there are] lots of missed opportunities for communication, where the crowd can’t hear the police [and] they don’t necessarily hear dispersal orders.

Those are some of the common issues that we’ve seen over the summer. I think what we really need to look at is crowd psychology. We need to look at how crowds think and behave. You have lots of different types of people in crowds. They range from random people who are passing by, to curious parties who show up just to see what’s going on, to what we call moderate protesters, who typically tend to comprise the vast majority of crowds. And then you definitely have a radical element in crowds that is intent on doing violence and property damage and behaving in extreme and provocative and illegal ways.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.