Portland revives police department protest response team amid skepticism stemming from 2020 protests

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A revamped protest response team is being launched in Portland's police department, despite skepticism from some residents who said their confidence was eroded by the police response to 2020 racial justice protests in the city.

The Portland City Council on Wednesday approved a 6% salary increase for officers who join the Public Order Team in the Portland Police Bureau, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. Officers who already work for the department will be asked to join, and the unit will be used during large public events.

The proposal came from a bargaining agreement between city attorneys and the union representing officers that Mayor Ted Wheeler said was "reflective of our shared interest in supporting both community voices and community safety, particularly during this election year.”

The team will have about 40 people who will get 96 hours of specialized training, Police Bureau Deputy Chief Mike Frome said. The training is still being developed, but it will include lessons on such things as crowd psychology and emphasize ways to communicate with protesters, he said. He hopes to have the team assembled by June.

Police have continued responding to protests since the prior iteration of the squad disbanded in 2021, after the roughly 50 team members resigned in response to one of the officers being criminally charged for using excessive force during a racial justice protest the prior summer and another member being investigated on similar allegations. The charges against the first officer have been dismissed, and the state declined to charge the second.

An investigation into the department's response to the 2020 protests urged the city to establish a response team that addresses issues identified with the prior program, such as a lack of clear oversight and accountability and an overreliance by officers on tear gas and pepper spray for crowd control.

Portland resident Paul Frazier told the council he had little trust in a department that allowed tear gas to drift into neighboring homes during a 2020 protest.

“How has anything changed?” he said. “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?”

Frome said recent state laws also change how police can 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.”