In Portland, Questions Swirl Around Local Police’s Coordination With Federal Officers

Local politicians condemned federal police actions in Portland, but evidence is mounting that the Portland Police Bureau is coordinating with federal agents.

Federal officers face off with protesters in Portland, OR on July 20, 2020.
Federal officers face off with protesters in Portland, Ore., on July 20, 2020. Photo: Justin Katigbak/Sipa via AP

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty agrees with other elected officials in Oregon who say federal police dispatched to the city by President Donald Trump are an “occupying army,” represent “a blatant abuse of power,” and are “shadowy forces” that have been “escalating, not preventing, violence.”

Hardesty, though, stands nearly alone in saying local officials should share blame for the nightly violence engulfing the streets around the federal courthouse in downtown Portland, where the federal cops are deployed. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell gave Trump the opportunity to send in the “secret police,” she told The Intercept. For more than a month before the federal forces came, local police had already been clashing with protesters. “Portland police overreacted at people throwing bottles at them,” Hardesty said. “They started gassing whole neighborhoods. They were doing that long before the feds showed up.”

“Portland police overreacted at people throwing bottles at them. They started gassing whole neighborhoods. They were doing that long before the feds showed up.”

Violence by city police motivated many protesters to stay in the streets, but by July, the protests had dwindled to a couple hundred people.

The federal assault on the city began on July 1, when federal agents began openly targeting Black Lives Matter supporters. Their presence became national news following a U.S. Marshal shooting a nonaggressive protester in the face with less-lethal munitions on July 12 and, days later, reports and videos of unidentified Border Patrol agents in camouflage grabbing people off the street, stuffing them into unmarked vehicles, and driving off. News coverage of the federal agents’ tactics led to a boom in protests: Thousands now show up nightly to the courthouse to demonstrate, this time against the federal police presence.

The federal moves into Portland are an apparent part of Trump’s plan to “take over cities” where he says crime is surging. His dispatching of 114 federal police to the city sprang from an executive order signed on June 26 to protect “Federal monuments, memorials, statues, or property.” Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf assembled a task force — made up of the Border Patrol, Coast Guard, U.S. Marshals, and other agencies — and reportedly dispatched 200 police to Washington, D.C.; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Seattle; and Portland before July 4.

The details of some of the moves have been murky. Typical of Trump’s improvisational chaos, White House officials scramble to engineer his impetuous decisions to look like developed policies. At least three different initiatives compromise Trump’s push to send federal police to cities: Wolf’s “Protecting Americans Communities Task Force”; the Department of Justice’s crime-fighting “Operation Legend” announced on July 8; and “Operation Diligent Valor,” which includes the Portland police mission.

In Portland, however, the feds are only part of the story. There is mounting evidence that, despite across-the-board condemnation from the city’s politicians, Portland’s own police force has coordinated closely with federal police in attacking protests. For Hardesty, the mayor’s focus on Trump as the sole cause of the chaos distracts from his inability to control local police, who she says are acting in concert with the federal agents.

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

Other local politicians, like City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, have echoed Hardesty’s allegation that local cops are working with the feds, calling for the collaboration to end.

Out of the locales that have already seen federal police involvement — with Trump vowing to send more into new cities — only in Portland has the conflict devolved into captivating and terrifying medieval-style battles. The assaults by federal agents on protesters are widely seen as a sign of Trump’s descent into violent authoritarianism.

Portland is no stranger to far-right violence. In 2017, the city became a hotbed for extremist rallies, one of which attracted a neo-Nazi who later committed a double murder. The next year, the extreme right used the city, with evidence of police complicity, to stage riots against anti-fascists. Now, Trump is using Portland — and the federal cops — as a testing ground to energize his base.

So why has Portland become a “right-wing boogeyman” during the Trump years? The answer starts with Oregon’s creation as a “white utopia” in 1859, where Black and mixed-race people were barred from living in the state. That shaped Oregon as a center of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s, and there were harsh Jim Crow laws in the state. To this day, 2 percent of Oregon’s population is Black. Portland itself is often called “the whitest big city” in America, owing to its 77 percent white population.

The overwhelming white makeup of the city and state — the legacy of white supremacy — can make politicians see taking on racist policies as a liability. “Politicians are reluctant to challenge racist policing for fear of being tarnished as anti-cop and losing support of white voters,” said Joseph Lowndes, professor of political science at the University of Oregon.

Enter Jo Ann Hardesty. In 2018, she was elected as the first Black woman to the Portland City Council on a platform of reining in police violence. Having advocated for police reforms since she moved to Portland 30 years ago, observers and journalists have described Hardesty as the first politician in the city to forcefully oppose racist policing.

The lack of establishment opposition to police power sets Portland apart from other cities where Trump has said or hinted he will dispatch federal police. The Portland Police Association has bulldozed elected officials for decades. One police union president would put his gun on the table when meeting with the mayor. Their contract protects racist cops. The Independent Police Review, which handles complaints about the cops, is widely viewed as toothless. And it’s hard to fire cops who’ve used deadly force.

In 2016, organizers had gathered demonstrators at City Hall to protest as the police union negotiated a new contract. Activists claim the police rioted, forcing protesters out of City Hall. Police in riot gear then surrounded the building while city officials approved their union contract. That would be the incident which convinced Hardesty to run for office.

In other cities, opposition to unaccountable police is stronger. In Seattle, a veto-proof majority of the council supports halving the police budget. In Philadelphia, the district attorney has vowed to prosecute any federal police who “unlawfully assaults and kidnaps people.” In Minneapolis, the city council has taken steps to dismantle the entire police department.

The big questions in Portland right now revolve around the relationship between the feds and Portland police.

“I believe police union president Daryl Turner requested the federal police presence,” Hardesty told The Intercept. “We are starting to learn that is how they are getting into other cities at the request of the police.” She pointed to the Chicago police union writing to Trump on July 18, asking “for help from the federal government … to bring civility back to the streets of Chicago.” Days later, Trump said federal police were headed to Chicago.

When DHS’s Wolf met with Turner, the police union chief said the main objective of the meeting was to have the feds “working alongside PPB Chief Lovell in conjunction with and communicating with him and his command staff.”

The Portland police have been cagey about how they work with the feds. Deputy Chief Chris Davis has said Portland police offered “suggestions” to the federal forces and coordinated efforts with them.

“It’s inevitable there’s some coordination. They can hear each other on the radio, they see each other on the street.”

Lovell, the police chief, said that Portland police communicate with federal officers because they operate “within a city block” of each other. He added, “We do not control their actions. They do not control ours. We don’t direct their uses of force, anything like that.” The next day, Portland Police said that federal police would no longer work “in the Portland Police incident command center” — surprising observers who didn’t realize the feds were there in the first place.

“It’s inevitable there’s some coordination,” said Independent Police Review Director Ross Caldwell. “They can hear each other on the radio, they see each other on the street.”

Media reports, footage, and eyewitnesses all point to close coordination.

Federal law enforcement officers, along with the Portland police and Multnomah County Sheriff’s deputies, used tear gas and impact munitions to disperse hundreds of protesters from downtown,” reported Oregon Public Broadcasting, of an incident blocks away from the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse on July 4.

The same night, Alex Milan Tracy, an independent photojournalist, filmed Portland police in vehicles ordering the streets cleared while federal officers nearby on foot enforced the sweeps. It was one of three times Tracy said he has witnessed a “coordinated response” between Portland and federal police “systematically clearing the streets around the federal courthouse.”

Robert Evans, who reports for Bellingcat and is one of the most prominent livestreamers of “The Battle of Portland,” said he has seen federal police and Portland police working together “multiple times” to clear the streets and assault protesters.

On July 12, videographer Garrison Davis documented dozens of federal police and Portland police mixed together pushing protesters away from the park and Portland police vehicles issuing warnings to leave the area. The Oregonian described the scene: “Portland police and federal officers marched shoulder-to-shoulder.”

At 1:31 a.m. on June 18, The Intercept heard Portland police warn force would be used, including crowd-control munitions, in five minutes. Six minutes later, federal police attacked a few hundred protesters with tear gas and pepper balls. “Evidence shows Portland police working with federal officers at protests, contradicting city officials,” The Oregonian reported. It described a “tandem force” of “federal and local officers emerged at the same time to advance on protesters.”

Court documents also show Portland police making a July 11 arrest of a man named Edward William Carubis on assault charges at the behest of the Federal Protective Services, a uniformed police division of the Department of Homeland Security.

The apparent coordination has raised the possibility for police critics that local police are using the federal forces to evade accountability. Portland police have received assistance from at least 11 different area law enforcement agencies, where these issues have already surfaced. According to Caldwell, the Independent Police Review director, the agency has forwarded as many as a “few dozen cases” of claims of excessive force to these other agencies, adding, “I highly doubt they would ever tell us the result.”

What’s more, courts have intervened to place limits on the Portland police — limits that do not apply to federal agents. So far, courts have sided with petitioners in issuing two sets of restraints. In one case filed by the ACLU of Oregon, Portland police were barred “from arresting, threatening to arrest, or using physical force” against journalists and legal observers. In another, the local police forces’ use of tear gas was limited.

City Council officials said they are being kept in the dark about the coordination. Hardesty said she is “appalled” that the mayor and police chief “lied to the public for the entire time the protests have been taking place. They all said, ‘Oh no, no cooperation at all.’” Nonetheless, local politicians are trying to undertake measures to break up the coordination. On July 22, the City Council acted, unanimously banning Portland police from working with federal law enforcement.

That night, though, the federal police did something local cops no longer can: unleashed “massive” clouds of tear gas on hundreds of protesters.

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