FILE — Oregon unlawful assembly

Officers with the Salem Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff's department separate a group of Trump supporters and counter-protesters gathered at the Oregon state capitol building on January 6, 2021, following a rally of some 250 Trump supporters who gathered to protest the 2020 presidential election results. 

(The Center Square) – Nine months since protests against police brutality and racism flooded Portland, Oregon lawmakers are looking to rein in the police tactics that have seen the city buried in lawsuits. 

Four bills in the Legislature would remove many of the protections police have in declaring unlawful assemblies, which many protesters have come to see as blank checks for police to disperse crowds by any means.

Under Oregon law, riots fall under Class C felonies and defined as "tumultuous and violent conduct" by six or more people risking grave public harm.

Unlawful assemblies are less clearly defined by the Portland Police Bureau as a civil disturbance presenting a "clear and present danger of riot." Declarations of such assemblies have become a regular phenomenon in Portland, where Mayor Ted Wheeler has called for harsher measures against vandals. 

The first of the bills aiming to change this status quo is House Bill 3059, which would repeal the state statute requiring law enforcement to disperse illegal public gatherings and make arrests.

Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner echoed concerns from other members of law enforcement, testifying Monday that the bill ignores good faith efforts Oregon police have been making to distinguish criminals from demonstrators.

"One of the things that we've tried really hard to do is to not paint the crowd with a broad brush," Skinner said. "We don't assume everybody is there with criminal intent, and understand that the vast majority of individuals that are assembling are there peacefully and lawfully and just want to be heard."

In October, the city of Eugene settled a $45,000 lawsuit from Eugene Weekly reporter Henry Houston, who was shot with pepper balls and hit with a tear-gas canister by local police while documenting protests against police brutality.

A related piece of legislation, House Bill 2481, would ban Oregon police from receiving surplus military equipment ranging from sonic devices and grenade launchers to armored vehicles and firearm silencers.

The bill is in response to national efforts to clamp down on the federal 1033 program allowing the Department of Defense offload excess military equipment to local authorities at virtually no cost since the 1990s.

Criminal justice reform groups have blamed military-style weapons for equipping police with flashy incentives to use excessive force. Police argue that civil unrest has given them reason to assume aggressive tactics.

Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton, representing the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association, voiced support for much of the bill save for its ban on armored vehicles because of their purported value in active shooter cases and high-water rescue operations.

House Bill 2928 would see the state to regulate the use of tear gas and other chemical weapons that advocates say poisoned a host of Oregon prisoners last summer, including a pregnant woman.

The bill would also place restrictions on the use of impact munitions like rubber bullets, whose use by the Portland Police Bureau has been the subject of numerous federal lawsuits.

Officers currently protected from allegations having to do with riot or mob action under the Oregon Tort Claims Act also would be fair game for prosecution.

"If an officer chooses to ram a car through a crowd of people exercising their First Amendment rights, there would be no civil liability for this action if the police had previously declared a riot, and there would be no recourse to justice for members of the public," Melissa Gingerich, a law clerk with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, told lawmakers on Monday. "We believe that this is bad public policy, and this is not what the Legislature originally intended."

Police violence continues to be defined along racial lines, the numbers show.

Data published by polling and data analysis firm FiveThirtyEight showed Seattle and Portland were 8th and 14th for the highest rate of police killings involving Black persons, based on a study of 37 of the largest police jurisdictions.

House Bill 2936 requires the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to comb through a prospective police candidate's history for racism and discriminatory behavior, including their social media profiles and financials.

The issue is a big concern in light of such cases as the Portland Police Bureau's two-week suspension of police Capt. Mark Kruger for wearing Nazi uniforms. Kruger, who had a long history of excessive force allegations, remained on the force until his retirement in 2014 and saw his allegations expunged.

Mike Salvaggio, a lobbyist for ORCORPS representing Oregon law enforcement, took few issues with HB 2936 beyond recommending minimum standards for local agencies and clearer definitions of discrimination.

House Subcommittee on Equitable Policing Chair and state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, said the "Jenga puzzle" of police reform will likely take time, discussion and thought.

"We've had a lot of conversations, and so I want to make sure that we're being judicious that we know which laws interact with one another," Bynum said.

House Committee On Judiciary House Subcommittee On Equitable Policing is scheduled to meet again to discuss the police arbitration process at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.