Evidence shows Portland police working with federal officers at protests, contradicting city officials

By K. Rambo

By K. Rambo

oregonlive.com

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has repeatedly said the police force he oversees does not want or need the help of federal officers during nightly protests downtown.

But hours after Wheeler’s most recent public plea for federal agents to leave, Portland police advanced on protesters in a coordinated effort with federal officers. Friday wasn’t the first time Portland police worked in tandem with federal officers. Portland police and federal officers marched shoulder-to-shoulder early Sunday morning to disperse protesters downtown.

Yet Wheeler and the Portland Police Bureau have denied any role in the decisions and operations of federal officers first seen in Portland June 27.

In the three weeks since, Department of Homeland Security officers have drawn criticism for arresting Portlanders and loading them into unmarked minivans, leading to national outcry. A U.S. Marshal’s officer shot a 26-year-old protester, Donavan La Bella, in the face with an impact munition, critically injuring him. The federal forces have drawn widespread criticism for using chemical weapons and impact rounds, and otherwise physically engaging protesters who do not appear to be a threat.

Portland police have said they provided “help” to federal officers at their request on the night of La Bella’s shooting June 11, and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell confirmed Friday that the two forces share real-time plans with one another.

“We do communicate with federal officers for the purpose of situational awareness and de-confliction,” Lovell said during a Friday press conference with Wheeler. “We’re operating in a very, very close proximity to one another, sometimes within the area of a city block.

Lovell denied that Portland police had taken direction from federal agencies or vice versa. On Saturday, a spokesperson for the mayor said Wheeler has “been told PPB does NOT coordinate with the feds on tactics.”

But officers’ actions on the street make clear that city officials and federal commanders are coordinating tactics in removing protesters.

The coordination raises questions about the clear contradiction between what the city’s police bosses are telling the public compared to how officers are actually responding to the nightly groundswell of protests against police violence.

For weeks, both Wheeler and federal officials have declined to provide specific information about the extent to which they have coordinated together. Portland police has refused to provide specific details about the operations of agencies assisting them, including federal forces.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said Saturday on Twitter that she was convinced Portland police and federal officers were working together to respond to protests. Her statement criticized Wheeler’s failure to quell the federal presence.

“We know that Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner met with DHS Secretary Chad Wolf,” Hardesty said. “We know Portland Police are collaborating with this federal occupying force.”

Ross Caldwell, director of Portland’s Independent Police Review, agreed that some level of coordination is clearly inevitable because federal buildings sit next to the downtown jail at the heart of nightly protests.

But Caldwell said the question comes down to if police are coordinating with federal agencies before the protests begin, and at what level those decisions are being made.

Caldwell said it is paramount for the public to know how the agencies work together, because federal officers are “operating from a different playbook” with fewer regulations and accountability.

“We can’t have the feds doing PPB’s dirty work and being able to get away with it because they don’t have any oversight,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said his office had requested reports about the police response, and investigators planned to review how much was planned out and how much was spur of the moment decision-making.

“You very quickly approach a line there of what is appropriate and what is not,” Caldwell said. “We have requested all of those reports, and we’re going to be reviewing.”

Protests against police brutality and systemic racism have occurred every night for more than seven weeks in Portland after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Portland police have often coordinated the response among the many different police agencies present at protests.

City officials have routinely decried vandalism and alleged violent attacks from protesters. Activists and civil rights groups have routinely decried Portland’s police use of force. The tactics have culminated in a multitude of lawsuits and temporary restraining orders against the city.

For several weeks, there were no visible federal officers at the nightly demonstrations, even as protesters staged outside the federal courthouse next to Portland police posted at the downtown jail.

After protesters removed a George Washington statue June 18 in Northeast Portland, the city found itself in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s administration. On June 21 in Tulsa, Trump singled out “leftist radicals” in Portland for tearing down the statue.

On June 26, Trump signed an executive order with the stated purpose of deterring damage to monuments and government property. Video footage shows federal officers wearing camouflage uniforms and military-style helmets were present the next day at the federal courthouse.

Tensions ramped up after U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced July 3 he was deploying a special federal force to Portland for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Officers from the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the U.S. Marshals Service have all responded to protests in recent days.

Wolf traveled to Portland Wednesday to meet with the federal forces. Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said he declined an invitation to talk with Wolf, and Wheeler’s office said the mayor was not invited. But Portland police confirmed Friday that Turner, who leads the police union, did meet with the DHS head.

The federal tactics gained national attention Monday after praise from Trump. The president’s White House remarks came two days after a federal officer used an impact munition to shoot La Bella, whose hands were raised above his head as he held a stereo.

La Bella was critically injured and had to undergo a series of surgeries, his mother, Desiree La Bella, has said.

U.S. District Attorney Billy Williams, Oregon’s top federal law enforcement official, has said he has called for two separate investigations, into La Bella’s shooting and into reports of unprovoked arrests by Homeland Security personnel.

The Department of Homeland Security has not returned six separate requests for comment about its operations, most recently sent Friday, pertaining to its actions in Portland. Wolf has said publicly that he has no plans to withdraw officers.

The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol issued a statement Friday that it will “work tirelessly to restore law and order” in Portland after “violent anarchists” destroyed federal property and injured federal officers. It did not describe the injuries to officers. The federal courthouse has been heavily tagged by graffiti.

Portland police have repeatedly said federal officers are acting on their own. Video evidence shows the local agency was working in tandem with federal officers at various points throughout the night when La Bella was shot. Soon after a deputy U.S. Marshal shot La Bella, Portland police were captured on video talking with deputy Marshals in front of the federal courthouse.

A few hours later, Portland police and federal officers were marching through the streets of Portland shoulder-to-shoulder clearing remaining protesters together.

Portland police said in a press release issued soon after that the actions were at the request of federal officials. “Portland Police officers responded when federal officers called for help because people were resisting arrest and people in the crowd were throwing bottles at federal officers,” the bureau said.

Portland police have provided few other details about their work with federal officers.

Officers in camouflage uniforms with military-style helmets and shields with “POLICE” written on them, first shown on video at protests June 27. The uniforms led many people to initially believe they were National Guard troops. Williams later confirmed that officers in camouflage posted at the courthouse were deputy U.S. Marshals.

Witnesses reported the officers engaged a protester with less-lethal munitions for no apparent reason as they walked past the group.

When asked July 1 about the appearance of officers at the federal courthouse, Lt. Tina Jones, a Portland police spokesperson, said she could not say which agency the officers represented.

“We are the ones who request mutual aid, but it is unreasonable to think our agency knows or has all the information on every agency’s uniform or equipment,” Jones said in an email. “You will have to inquire with them.”

It was not until July 3 that Portland police confirmed “federal officers” had made arrests. In response to a follow up question, Jones disclosed U.S. Marshals officers and Department of Homeland Security Federal Protective Services were actively policing protests at the federal courthouse.

“PPB is the lead agency for Portland city property; the federal agencies are primary for federal properties,” Jones said when asked about the level of coordination between Portland police and federal agencies on July 4. “We coordinate as needed for public safety needs in the city of Portland.”

Jones did not answer follow-up questions about when Portland police began coordinating with federal officers or to what degree they had been coordinating together.

After the Homeland Security secretary confirmed July 3 he had deployed agents to Portland, Wheeler did not immediately criticize their deployment.

In the days after La Bella’s shooting, Wheeler accused the federal officers of placing protesters in danger. At his press conference Friday, he accused President Donald Trump of using Portland “as a staging ground to further his political agenda.”

Less than 12 hours later, after Portland police labeled a demonstration as “unlawful,” Portland police and federal officers marched in tandem toward hundreds of Portlanders.