PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with the police chiefs from Washington, DC and Portland, Oregon about the nature of recent demonstrations in their cities and their approach to policing these events and trying to protect their officers.

Chief Chuck Lovell, Portland Police Bureau:

For Nearly 100 Nights, We’ve Had Officers in Harm’s Way

We’ve had nightly crowd control events for almost 100 nights straight. We’ve shifted some of our patrol officers to a full-time crowd control mission. About 25 officers are no longer on patrol duties and are assigned to our rapid response teams. We’ve had a lively protest environment in Portland for a long, long time, but this is unprecedented even for us.

We have a fairly active contingent of a few hundred people who commit late-night violence. They are out every night, and their intent is to fight the police. There are some nights when it’s quiet and we don’t make any arrests, but there’s somebody out at one of our precincts, our federal courthouses, or somewhere else every night. Sometimes they’ll march and just stand outside, so we won’t have to make any arrests or use any force. But it’s a constant occurrence for us.

Wexler:  What have those hundred days of demonstrations been like for the officers policing them?

Chief Lovell: It’s been especially hard for our front-line folks. They get pelted with rocks, commercial-grade fireworks, and very harmful green lasers shined in their eyes. We’ve had over 100 officers injured during these events. Some officers are off for a protracted period of time due to their injuries.

We have rapid response officers with specialized training and some additional protective gear, but a lot of the officers we call on for a mobile field force-type environment come in from patrol with just a helmet, baton, and very minimal protective gear. They’re much more susceptible to objects that are thrown at them.

It’s very difficult on morale and people’s psyches. You come to work and your buildings are all boarded up and there’s horrible graffiti spray painted all around your work area. It really takes a toll on them and their families personally and emotionally. We’re trying to keep them uplifted and supported.

The biggest issue is this hardcore group that keeps coming out to fight with the police. Now we’ve had pro-Trump, Patriot Prayer, or Proud Boys-type organizations coming to counterprotest. There’s added concern when those two groups meet or try to clash with one another.

Wexler:  Are the demonstrators you arrest mostly from the Portland region?

Chief Lovell:  I’d say about 60% are from the Portland area and about 40% are from outside. We’ve made close to 700 arrests during these protests.

Wexler:  How is your district attorney handling these cases?

Chief Lovell:  We have a new district attorney who issued a policy about which crimes his office would and would not charge. The policy has a presumptive declination for a host of crimes that don’t involve deliberate property damage, theft, or use of force or threat. The list includes things like interfering with a police officer, disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, and harassment. They’re lower-level crimes, but they’re important crimes to hold people accountable for in a protest environment.

We get a lot of people who are in the front of these events providing cover for the people in the back who are throwing things. We’ve had a lot of arsons or attempted arsons, some at the police facility and our union hall.

Not being able to prosecute cases, especially for disorderly conduct or interfering with a police officer, makes it very difficult to hold people accountable. And I think it emboldens people to come out and engage in that type of activity.

Wexler:  What happened the other night when a demonstrator was killed?

Chief Lovell:  Last week we had one large group that came from Clackamas County in a vehicle caravan. It was kind of a pro-Trump rally that came into downtown Portland with hundreds of vehicles over dozens of miles. To cover that type of event, with people monitoring the vehicle caravan and in place to react to any skirmishes or altercations, is very tough. We had a homicide occur downtown shortly after the vehicle caravan had cleared.

We’re a pretty lean agency to begin with. We had 52 people retire in the month of August. We lost 84 positions on July 1 due to a budget decision. And 100 of our roughly 891 officers are still in “trainee” status, because our academy was closed and we couldn’t get people through the academy to finish their training. So we’re pretty lean, and we’ve added this crowd control responsibility on top of our usual duties. Staffing is tough, and it’s hard to have officers everywhere.

Wexler:  What are your biggest concerns?

Chief Lovell:  Every night I’ve been chief I’ve gone to bed with people in harm’s way. I’m worried about one of my people getting hurt. I’m worried about a community member getting hurt. These are very volatile situations. People are out there armed and looking to have interactions with the police or an opposing group.

Wexler:  How do you think we move forward?

Chief Lovell:  I’ve been calling on elected officials to step up and do the messaging around holding people accountable. I think it’s important for elected leaders to denounce the violence and destruction. Our city has been severely damaged, with destruction to buildings and businesses.

It’s important for leaders to step up to say, “This is wrong. This is not what we need in our city. We need police reform and racial justice. But destroying people’s businesses and livelihoods is not getting us anywhere.”

I’ve been calling on all elected officials to come out and be a strong voice with that message.


Chief Pete Newsham, Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department:

There’s a Clear Difference Between Peaceful Protesters and Violent Offenders

There’s a huge difference between protesters who are demonstrating and the violence and destruction of property that we see. I think the media and others often want to lump them all together, but we need to be careful not to combine those groups.

On May 30 and 31, after the murder of George Floyd, we had some pretty significant violent activity here in the city. Windows were broken, St. John’s Church was set on fire, we had other fires, and we had a lot of damage to businesses in Georgetown and near the White House.

On June 1, a curfew was ordered by the mayor, and more than 150 people were taken into custody.

For the next several weeks, we had to deal with a much smaller group that was intent on attempting to set up an Occupy-type movement by the White House. We were able to prevent that from occurring.

Several weeks into June, things began to tail off pretty dramatically and eventually came to a stop. In mid-August we had an event in the city that was unplanned, and we didn’t have any intelligence on it. About 100 people marched through the city and were involved in the violent behavior of painting buildings and police cars, setting fires, and throwing projectiles and incendiary devices at police officers. We made a mass arrest of about 40 people associated with that.

After that arrest, it was relatively quiet until a couple weeks ago. There were some Republican National Convention events planned in the District. We didn’t have a lot of forewarning that they were going to occur. On Thursday night of the convention, we had an event at the White House followed by a fireworks display at the Washington Monument.

On Friday of that week, there was a national protest scheduled to occur in the District with a large number of people. Tens of thousands of people attended. It was a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. It was very peaceful, with no arrests or property damage.

On Saturday we had some marches across the city that were peaceful in nature. Then around 11 p.m. that night, a group of about 150 congregated down by the White House and became violent and destructive. We made a number of arrests that night.

The following night was the same, and again we had to make a number of arrests.

Wexler: What sort of violent behavior do you see from these groups?

Chief Newsham: They begin by spray-painting private property. Then they set small fires. When the police respond to those incidents, they’ll throw projectiles and incendiary devices at the police officers. That requires a police reaction. Officers have to put on their protective equipment, and sometimes they have to deploy pepper spray and munitions. These agitators will try to capture incidents of police reaction and couch it as police attacking peaceful demonstrators.

So what’s actually happening is their assaultive and destructive behavior requires a police response to regain order. It’s a purposeful effort to create a problem, have the police react, then paint the police in a negative light.

Wexler: Are the demonstrators you arrest mostly from the Washington, D.C. region?

Chief Newsham:  This past weekend, about 70% of the people arrested were not from Washington, D.C. We also seized a van that drove very close to the police line and was providing cover for some of the agitators, who would stand behind the van and throw projectiles at the police. With the van blocking their view, the police couldn’t identify who was engaged in that behavior. Police moved in, seized the van, and arrested the driver. Prosecutors didn’t prosecute the driver. In a news interview the driver said he was just handing out snacks to the demonstrators, when he was purposefully providing cover for people throwing projectiles and incendiary devices at our police officers. 


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.