Judge Finds Portland, Ore., Violated Order Restricting Police Use of ‘Less-Lethal’ Munitions Against Protesters

Zack Linly
·4 min read

During the wave of anti-police-violence protests and civil unrest that took place over the summer, Portland, Ore. took center stage as one of three cities that saw so much chaos that the Department of Justice declared it an “anarchist jurisdiction.” But as activists, media outlets and even some officials have pointed out, protesters weren’t the only ones at fault when protests turned violent. It was often the police themselves who caused tensions to escalate.

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Last week, the ruling of a Portland judge found that the city was in violation of an order restricting the use of less-lethal impact munitions against nonviolent protesters.

The Oregonian reports that U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez ruled that on June 30, Portland police officers violated the order he issued four days prior restricting the use of munitions such as pepper spray, rubber bullets and other less-lethal projectiles. The ruling followed a two-day hearing last month regarding a lawsuit filed against the city by nonprofit activist group Don’t Shoot Portland.

Judge Hernandez’s ruling might seem like a clear victory for the activist group, but the truth is the lawsuit alleged that police violated the order nine times. But according to the ruling, only three instances of police violence that day put the cops and the city in violation of the order.

From the Oregonian:

Hernandez identified three uses of less-lethal launchers that violated his order: Officer Brent Taylor’s firing of five shots from his FN303 launcher at the legs of someone refusing to let go of an “Abolish the Police” banner with a PVC-pipe frame; Taylor’s deployment of 10 rounds from the same type of launcher against two people trying to pull a person on roller skates away from police and back into the crowd; and the firing of a less-lethal launcher by an unidentified officer at a person who tried to pick up an unidentified object from the ground.

“None of the individuals targeted by police in these incidents were engaged in active aggression, and the use of force did not reasonably prevent the use of a higher level of force. All three individuals appear to have been struck by police munitions. The Court cannot conclude that these three violations over an hour-long period were ‘merely technical,’” the judge ruled.

Taylor testified that he fired his launcher at someone holding onto the banner because he believed the banner would later be used as a weapon.

But the judge noted that nothing suggested the banner was being used as a weapon. Further, he wrote, “in the moments before Officer Taylor fired his FN303, the protestors carrying the banner were complying with PPB’s directions in moving with the rest of the crowd away from the PPA building.’’

It’s almost as if cops used any weak excuse they could think up to justify their use of force. If a protester holding a protest banner during a protest can be perceived as potentially armed and dangerous, who can’t be?

And there’s more:

In the second instance, Taylor testified that he fired 10 rounds because he believed two people were interfering in the arrest of the person on roller skates. He also said he did so to prevent an assault or a higher level of force.

But video of the moment didn’t support Taylor’s assertions, the judge said.

“In video from the protestor’s vantage point, it is clear that no arrest is being made,” Hernandez wrote.

“During the struggle over the banner, the individual on roller skates falls to the ground and protestors try to pull the fallen individual back into the crowd. In video from the officer’s perspective, officers appear to grab and shove the individual,” the judge wrote. “Aside from a few brief moments of physical contact, however, there is nothing to suggest that this individual was under arrest.”

Who knew that helping someone back on their feet could be perceived as lawless behavior?

The third violation happened when a protester walked towards the police line and tried to pick something up off the ground. That act resulted in a cop feeling the need to get all trigger-happy with less-lethal munitions as well. Once again, Hernandez ruled that nothing the protester did “constitutes a threat of assault to officers or others.”

Of course, Hernandez ruled in favor of police in all other instances, cited by Don’t Shoot Portland, including the use of force against a protester who kicked a smoke canister in the direction of police and one who reportedly grabbed an officer’s baton.

As for the instances where the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, it’s unclear what the ruling means for officers found to have violated the June 26 order. According to the Oregonian, Hernandez “will meet with both sides at a future date to determine what, if any, sanctions to issue.”