Oregon Cities

Portland will reinstate protest response team ahead of 2024 elections

FILE - Two protesters passively resisted police orders on Nov. 4, 2020, when the demonstration ensued as votes were counted nationwide and the results of the presidential election remained undeclared.

FILE – Two protesters passively resisted police orders on Nov. 4, 2020, when the demonstration ensued as votes were counted nationwide and the results of the presidential election remained undeclared.

Sergio Olmos / Sergio Olmos

Portland City Council is restoring the police bureau’s protest response team ahead of a polarizing election season, despite some Portlanders’ concerns with how officers treated demonstrators in recent years.

Commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved a 6% salary raise for officers who sign up for a new “Public Order Team” in the Portland Police Bureau, establishing the new unit in the process. The proposal came from a bargaining agreement made between city attorneys and the Portland Police Association, the union representing rank-and-file officers.

“The letter of agreement before us today is reflective of our shared interest in supporting both community voices and community safety, particularly during this election year,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler. “A strong commitment to civic engagement and free expression of ideas is inextricably woven into the DNA of our city. I believe we all want to ensure that the spirit remains intact while also embracing our duty to provide a safe place for voices to be heard.”

PPB Deputy Chief Mike Frome said that the pay hike will help attract new hires.

“We need to get the best people that we can get in place, pay them according to the responsibility and specialty that we are going to expect of them and move forward,” Frome said.

Related: Portland Street Response, despite successes, faces an uncertain future

PPB has long struggled to hire and retain new officers, despite having the budget to do so. As of February, the bureau had 806 sworn employees, and 75 vacant positions.

The new team of about 40 PPB employees will get 96 hours of specialized training before hitting the streets, according to Frome. That training is still in development, but Frome said it will include lessons on crowd psychology, respirator use, and emphasize ways to communicate with protesters.

The Public Order Team won’t be a full-time job. Officers who already work for the police bureau will be asked to join the new unit, which will only be deployed during a large public event.

Per the contract agreement between the city and the Portland Police Association, officers will be granted a 6% pay bump to their salary for the entire time they are assigned to the new team — not just when they’re working a protest shift.

The pay hike will cost the city an additional $380,000 annually.

Replacing the Rapid Response Team

The new team is meant to replace a previous iteration of this squad, called the Rapid Response Team. That group of about 50 officers, sergeants and detectives was dissolved in 2021, after all people assigned to the unit resigned. Their resignation came days after news that one member of the team, Officer Corey Budworth, was being criminally charged for using excessive force during a racial justice protest, and another unit member, Detective Erik Kammerer, was being investigated by the Oregon Department of Justice on similar allegations. The charges against Budworth have since been dismissed, and the state declined to charge Kammerer.

While police continued to respond to protests in the years since, Portland didn’t have a standalone team specifically trained for the job.

But reinstating this unit was a top recommendation that came from an outside investigation last year into PPB’s protest response in 2020. The investigation, a stipulation of the city’s settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, identified a lack of clear oversight and accountability for the Rapid Response Team before it disbanded. It also noted that officers on the squad were over-reliant on tear gas and pepper spray to control crowds.

Investigators urged the city to establish a new protest response team that addresses these issues.

This gave the city a green light to reinstitute the protest team.

Related: Portland police officers resign from Rapid Response Team

But many who observed how police treated protesters during the 2020 racial justice protests were skeptical of the new squad. Portlander Paul Frazier told council Wednesday that he had little trust in a police bureau that allowed tear gas to drift inside his house and neighbors’ homes during a 2020 protest.

“How has anything changed,” Frazier asked the council. “How will we measure the success of this team and what will the accountability look like to City Council and to the citizens of Portland?”

Others pointed to the fact that the city has paid out millions of dollars to resolve lawsuits against people who were injured by Rapid Response Team members during 2020 protests.

Frome acknowledged these concerns Wednesday, and noted that several recent state laws have also changed how police can legally manage crowds.

“I know that the thought of a new public order team can be very frightening or disconcerting to a lot of people,” he said. “I think we’re going to have a lot of eyes, both internal and external, that are going to watch us as we build this.”

Most city commissioners pointed to the fact that this proposal was recommended through the DOJ settlement before casting their vote in support.

“I greatly understand and I hear the trepidation and lack of trust from community members, but the fact is that we do need to put this team together,” said Commissioner Carmen Rubio.

Related: Portland Hires National Group To Investigate How Police Handle Protests

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez characterized critics of the new team as “extremists,” and said its creation is a “necessary step to protect our community against political violence and destruction of our social fabric.”

With the added financial incentive, Frome said he hopes to assemble the new team by June.

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