People protesting the death of George Floyd and other black citizens confront a Portland Police Department cruiser June 1, 2020, on Franklin Street. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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More than a year after protests in downtown Portland led to clashes between demonstrators and police officers, resulting in police deploying pepper spray and the arrests of approximately two dozen people, an independent investigation has concluded police acted appropriately.

City residents hoping for more Police Department accountability, however, were not pleased by the finding.

The city released the 38-page report on July 22, nearly 14 months after the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. A Minneapolis-based professional services firm, Clifton Larson Allen, was hired by the city in February to conduct the probe for $38,000.

City Councilor Pious Ali, who called for the independent investigation last summer, said he hadn’t read the full report yet because he has been traveling.

But he did say one thing caught his attention: While witnesses told investigators protesters were arrested by officers from outside the Portland Police Department, the same Portland officer is listed on all the department paperwork.

“I have no idea what type of practice that is,” Ali said.

Ali also said the report substantiates the work police put into their training, and that they continue to work on their shortcomings.

Portland resident and political activist Joey Brunelle, meanwhile, said he believed the report had several flaws and that the city tried to frame it as “overly positive.” He also said there are excerpts that suggest “there exists a pervasive culture of dishonesty among Portland police officers.”

Brunelle noted sections of the report undercut police statements about their use of pepper spray and about protesters who allegedly pulled a truck driver from his vehicle after he drove into a crowded area.

“On multiple occasions just that night, the official reports filed by the PD did not line up with camera footage and eyewitness accounts,” Brunelle said in an email. “And in one of those instances, blame was inaccurately attributed to protestors to an event.”

It was around 9:30 p.m. on June 1 when a tractor-trailer drove into a crowd at the intersection of Franklin and Middle streets. Police said agitated protestors removed the driver from the truck, but the investigation said video footage clearly shows police removing the driver.

Several police reports described an angry and aggressive crowd surrounding the driver, which the investigation found was directly refuted by security footage showing “a number of protestors linking arms and forming a (protective) line, telling other protestors to give (the police) time to do their job.”

The first protests in Portland began on May 29 and continued through June 5. The largest, and the subject of the investigation, occurred the night of June 1-2.

The report said these events “formed organically and somewhat spontaneously or were organized primarily through social media and other communications.” The events by and large didn’t have prior planning or permits and were “largely peaceful, but there were numerous incidents of violence towards police officers, property damage, and looting of businesses.”

The protests “started out peacefully but swiftly devolved into riotous type behavior” which resulted in 23 arrests, the report said.

The report used several methods to review the events, including police body camera footage, security footage, dash camera footage, analysis of social media posts and other sources, mapping out the course of the day and night. According to the report, the event changed around 8 p.m. after some protesters began throwing objects at the police. The crowd had separated into three groups, and police said protesters refused to share their routes, making it difficult for police to block streets.

In the days leading up to the protest, participants had been placing flowers, wreaths, and other ceremonial objects on the steps of the police station on Middle Street. Police removed these items, claiming it was to keep traffic clear. The report’s authors said they were informed through interviews that this antagonized protesters, although police were not aware.

In a report summary, witnesses described police deploying pepper spray as a response to protestors throwing water bottles. Every witness stated the bottles were thrown by people from the back of the crowd, but officers directed their pepper spray at close range at protesters in the front. Witnesses also said this police response was excessive.

Brunelle also criticized the city for hiring CLA, because its lead consultant, Frank Rudewicz, is a former police officer. 

“I’m really not sure how this can truly be an independent report when the person who led the investigation is a police and FBI veteran himself,” Brunelle said.

In a summary of the report, the city concluded that evidence showed a group separate from the protesters used the opportunity to “engage in aggressive and violent behavior.” It went on to say CLA determined police facilitated the protests and that their response was positive.

The city also stated no complaints were received about the actions of police, and that the PD’s Internal Affairs department reviewed the actions and did not discover any misconduct or need for an administrative investigation.

“I hope the results of this process and final report will only bolster our community’s trust and confidence in the Portland Police Department,” Police Chief Frank Clark said in the city press release. “As noted last year, these officers have my full faith and support, and I was extremely proud of the way our staff faced some trying and unprecedented circumstances and violence with discipline, restraint and professionalism.

“I remain honored to be part of such a professional and progressive organization,” the chief continued. “We’ll continue to seek out best practices, hold ourselves accountable, and do our jobs with overarching integrity, as we strive to protect the public and each other.”