A Portland police officer says the nightly protests are keeping him from responding to serious crimes, and says Trump's federal agents have only made the crisis worse

acollman@businessinsider.com (Ashley Collman)
Portland police officers in riot gear stand outside the Portland Justice Center during protests on May 31, 2020. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/heavily-armed-riot-police-stand-on-the-porch-of-the-damaged-news-photo/1216633354?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images</a></p>
Portland police officers in riot gear stand outside the Portland Justice Center during protests on May 31, 2020.
  • Insider spoke to a Portland police officer, who weighed in on the Trump administration's decision to send federal agents to the city. 

  • Portland has been the scene of nightly protests since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis at the end of May. 

  • The officer said the federal agents have only reinvigorated the protests, and riled up a "hardcore anarchist group" that has been getting involved in many demonstrations in the city.

  • "They're not Black Lives Matter, they're people with a range of issues and they're happy to jump onto whichever one," he said. 

  • But he also defended the Portland police's use of tear gas, which has been widely criticized as excessive, and the arrests of protesters by unidentified local and federal agents.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Portland, Oregon, has been the scene of nightly protests for more than two months now.

What started as demonstrations against police brutality have in recent days morphed into anti-government protests after President Donald Trump's administration sent federal agents to the city to quell the unrest.

While both protesters and government officials have spoken at length about the protests, local police officers caught in the middle have been mostly quiet.

On Tuesday, Insider spoke to one Portland Police officer who gave his perspective on the protests and the federal government's intervention.

He is a five-year veteran of the force, and normally patrols the downtown area, where nightly protests have been taking place.

He asked to remain anonymous because he was not given clearance to talk to the press, but his identity is known to Insider.

Protesters gather outside the Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse in Portland on July 22, 2020. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/crowd-of-protesters-gather-around-a-newly-reinforced-news-photo/1227748968?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Nathan Howard/Getty Images" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Nathan Howard/Getty Images</a></p>
Protesters gather outside the Mark O. Hatfield US Courthouse in Portland on July 22, 2020.

Protests were diminishing when the feds arrived

Demonstrations in the city began after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.

The crowds had been getting smaller, with just 100 people a night turning up, until federal agents showed up two weeks ago and reinvigorated the local movement, he said. Now the city is back to seeing crowds in the thousands.

"It's much more energized. I feel like they've expanded the appeal outside of the group, the Black Lives Matter group. Because now it's more generally a Trump thing and then also a federal-government-authority thing," he said.

"It's definitely extended this whole timeline."

The officer said he understands why the federal government may have wanted to send in reinforcements to help protect federal buildings in downtown Portland, which have been routinely defaced during the protests. But this decision has had ramifications, he said.

"There's a question of if it's reasonable," he said. "Sure, bring people in to protect the building from burning down ... But was it a good choice strategically or tactically? Could it have been handled differently? I don't have a good answer for those."

Federal officers arrest a protester after she crossed a fence line set up around the federal courthouse building in downtown Portland on July 23, 2020. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/federal-officers-arrest-a-protester-after-she-crossed-a-news-photo/1227747899?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Nathan Howard/Getty Images" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Nathan Howard/Getty Images</a></p>
Federal officers arrest a protester after she crossed a fence line set up around the federal courthouse building in downtown Portland on July 23, 2020.

'People with a range of issues ... happy to jump onto whichever one'

The officer said the city's protests have also empowered local extremists who have been piggybacking onto every local demonstration.

"The issue is we have this hardcore anarchist group that jumps into every protest," he said. "It's figuring out how to deal with them that's constantly a problem for us."

Many have accused the far-left antifa group of being behind much of the violence in Portland, but the officer said he wouldn't name them as the perpetrators. 

"I'm sure we've got a large number of people in town who could call themselves antifa," he said. "But there's about 200 rock-throwers, Molotov-cocktail-making types — the types actually ready to engage in violence that I wouldn't even say is antifa, it's just some specific people who are particularly interested in direct conflict."

"They're not Black Lives Matter, they're people with a range of issues and they're happy to jump onto whichever one."

The officer added these radical protesters have thrown a range of items at him at recent rallies, including rocks, beer cans, fireworks, frozen Gatorade bottles, and balloons full of paint. 

Actions like these, he said, cross the line.

"It's really annoying when probably one minute into [a protest] someone hit me with a glass bottle," he said, adding that he was "being treated as a prop in somebody else's morality play."

He also said that officers have found guns on several people arrested during the protests.

"My fear is we're just waiting for that one person who may be home on social media, who is mentally unstable enough that they actually cause some more extreme incident," he said.

Protests distracting from other serious calls

Several members of Portland's Black community have complained in recent days that the city's protesters had co-opted the Black Lives Matter movement.

The officer agreed with this sentiment, and pointed out the irony in anti-police protests taking place in a city that he believes has a very progressive view of law enforcement.

"Yelling at me about killing people — I've never killed anyone. Not even gotten into a fight with anybody," he said. "But I have responded to hundreds of domestic violence calls. I do that all the time. Tons of overdoses."

"Nobody becomes a Portland Police officer unless they are interested in a more modern sort of reform-minded style of policing," he said.

"That's why it's unfair that this is happening here. A lot of reform needs to happen in the country, but Portland already has fewer police officers than it really needs and has been struggling for a long time."

A crowd of about 1,500 protester gather at the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland on July 20, 2020. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/crowd-of-about-1-500-protester-gather-at-the-multnomah-news-photo/1227718695?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Nathan Howard/Getty Images" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Nathan Howard/Getty Images</a></p>
A crowd of about 1,500 protester gather at the Multnomah County Justice Center in Portland on July 20, 2020.

He also said it's difficult to work protests when he knows there are serious issues that need his attention. 

"Every time you're on the line they're just screaming at you for hours, trying to get to you," he said. "What's frustrating is the whole time I'm thinking: 'When can I just go back to responding when some lady says she's hiding in her bathroom from her husband?'"

"We didn't have enough police before. People in my area, they're calling for help every day."

Defense of tear gas and arrests by unidentified agents

In the interview, the officer defended some of the actions taken by local police, such as tear gas and arrests by undercover agents. He also said the Trump administration had only made things worse by getting involved.

Portland police officers were criticized early on in the protests for their liberal use of tear gas on protesters, so much so that the governor banned them from using it unless a riot was declared.

The officer said he understands why the police's use of tear gas caused an uproar, but said he felt cops had been "pretty reasonable" with it.

"I understand that it affects people that weren't doing anything wrong, but it's kind of an emergency situation," he said. 

Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland reacts after being exposed to tear gas fired by federal agents on July 22, 2020. <p class="copyright"><a href="https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/portland-mayor-ted-wheeler-reacts-after-being-exposed-to-news-photo/1227748164?adppopup=true" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Nathan Howard/Getty Images" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Nathan Howard/Getty Images</a></p>
Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland reacts after being exposed to tear gas fired by federal agents on July 22, 2020.

The inarguable turning point in Portland's protests came about two weeks ago, when reports detailed how unidentified federal agents were arresting people off the street and taking them away in unmarked cars

But the officer we spoke to was sympathetic to the feds on this issue, saying there's a good reason why agents wouldn't drive into a protest in a marked car, for example.

Doing so is only going to "create a mob that will require more force," he said.

Instead, he said it would be better to "establish cause and wait to arrest" a suspect once they've broke off from the crowds.

No end in sight

The latest news out of the Portland protests is that local officials are speaking with the White House to try and get the federal agents recalled from the city.

But the officer we spoke to said he thinks the protests will rage on for the foreseeable future.

"I think there's two theories right now. If nothing terrible happens for four weeks, it will die down. The other is that it will run through the election, assuming Trump loses. And if he wins, then it's going to be bad," he said.

At the end of the day, as long as the protests are nonviolent, he has no issues with them, the officer said. He said he's even taken part in protests like the Women's March in Portland in the past.

"The Portland Police, we don't have a problem with people protesting," he said. "People protest here all the time. But you don't get to hit me in the face with a glass bottle as some sort of statement."

"If we can just not burn down any buildings or hurt anybody, protest all you want."

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