Handling of Public Protests a ‘Stress Test’ for Police Reform

Oregon State Troopers and Portland police advance through tear gas and fireworks while dispersing a protest against police brutality and racial injustice on September 5, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/GETTY IMAGES)

Oregon State Troopers and Portland police advance through tear gas and fireworks while dispersing a protest against police brutality and racial injustice on September 5, 2020, in Portland, Oregon. (Nathan Howard/GETTY IMAGES)

September 18, 2020

Sept. 21, 2020, update: The Justice Department announced that Seattle and Portland, Oregon, two cities covered in this article, have been added to a list of state and local governments “that are permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction in American cities,” according to a presidential memo. The recent memo threatened to review federal funding to cities that fit the criteria. In adding Portland and Seattle to the list, the DOJ cited violence and demonstrations that have occurred in both cities since George Floyd’s death in May.

Portland, Oregon, passed a milestone this month: 100 consecutive days of protest against police brutality and racial injustice.

Violent outbursts have marked the period of unrest since George Floyd died May 25, after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned the 46-year-old Black man to the ground by his neck. In Portland and across the country, the demonstrations unleashed by Floyd’s death still crackle with demands to fundamentally change American law enforcement.

In many cases, police have responded with force to disperse protesters, captured on cameras nationwide — including in Cleveland, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, all cities that were already under court-enforced agreements to reform their police departments. Independent monitors overseeing those agreements say it’s possible police could find themselves out of compliance for how they’ve responded to the recent unrest.

In Portland, peaceful vigils and protests flared to violence starting in late May, with officers firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades into crowds. The police bureau is on track to be released from its reform agreement as early as January 2021, but that could change if a pending review finds that police violated the terms of the contract. The review will focus on patterns of behavior rather than isolated incidents, according to Dennis Rosenbaum, a professor emeritus of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago who leads the monitoring team.

“In a way, these protests are a true test of the reforms,” Rosenbaum said. “In the next couple of months, we’re going to write a report, and I’m not certain yet what it’s going to say, but it’s going to either say, you’re still in compliance, or you’re not.”

The aggressive tactics used on protesters have also undermined the tentative hope some community members held for government-led reform. Activist Lakayana Drury, who co-chairs a civilian advisory group created in the wake of the agreement, says the way Portland police acted during protests has cast doubt on whether the reform agreement was ever effective. He has also criticized the compliance team overseeing the agreement as being too lenient in its progress reports. Instead, Drury said it’s time for the community and groups such as his own committee to play a greater role in deciding how Portland should be policed.

“The protests are essential and instead of a test, I look at it as a gift — the community’s saying, ‘Look, let’s have this dialogue, let’s create these changes,’” Drury said. “There’s some changes achieved by the settlement agreement, and it’s now the time to move on to that next chapter, that post-George Floyd new paradigm of policing in the United States and bringing the power back to the people.”

A police spokesperson told FRONTLINE that Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell was too busy for an interview. In a brief statement released September 1, Lovell condemned the violent protests and called on the city’s elected officials to “draw a line in the sand and to hold people accountable.”

A similar reassessment of how police have handled protests is underway in Seattle. On May 7, weeks before George Floyd died, the city had filed a motion to end its commitments under a 2012 consent decree, the strongest type of police-reform agreement. Seattle formally withdrew the motion on June 4, following “unprecedented levels of protests,” in which demonstrators clashed with police, and the air downtown burned with smoke and pepper spray.

“The protests have demonstrated nationwide that police departments are not prepared to handle these kinds of incidents with the skill and education that is necessary to do it,” said Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center and the monitor of Seattle’s agreement. Bobb said he can’t yet comment on the situation in Seattle but is preparing a special report about the police response. The document will answer whether Seattle is still in compliance with its consent decree.

“[The protests] raised some questions that have not been resolved yet, about whether Seattle is truly in a position right now where the consent decree can be dissolved as it appeared to be right before the George Floyd incident,” Bobb said.

Lawyer Rebecca Boatright, the Seattle police department’s executive director of legal affairs, said the protests will “stress test” the consent decree. The judge overseeing the decree wants a thorough review of how police have handled demonstrations, Boatright said. She anticipates the research will become part of a greater push to change how law enforcement nationwide respond to future protests.

In Cleveland, the monitoring team posted a survey online to gather feedback on how police have handled the protests. And in Chicago, the city hosted public listening sessions before an independent monitor and the federal judge overseeing the city’s 2019 consent decree.

More than 500 people signed up for the Chicago sessions, with speakers chosen at random. A youth group leader described seeing her eight-year-old niece be pepper-sprayed. A photographer said she had been aggressively shoved and kicked by police. A young farmworker showed a scar on his forehead where he said a police baton had split his skin.

The consent decree “sets the standard for police response … especially when the protesters are expressing disdain for the police,” Sheila Bedi, a lawyer who represents a coalition of community groups, told the crowd. “And instead of upholding the rule of law, the CPD has subverted the requirements of this consent decree.”

A spokesperson for the Chicago Police Department, Luis Agostini, said the independent monitor’s report will likely find minor deviations from the agreement during the protests, such as training delays. He also said the internal accountability system is overwhelmed by police reports from protests, even as officers are faced with an unusually high number of tense situations involving the public. But Agostini said it was too soon to determine whether police acted out of compliance with more significant aspects of the agreement, such as its use-of-force guidelines.

“These are our true tests,” Agostini said. “It’s essentially a test of the consent decree, a test of our commitment to reform.”

—With reporting by Serena Chow 

Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd, Former Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



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