By Maxine Bernstein
SALEM, Ore. — Legislators in Oregon are examining a law on the books that now gives police authority to declare unlawful assemblies, which Portland police and other agencies used frequently during months of mass protests in the past year.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon has called on the Legislature to repeal the law.
Police chiefs and sheriffs across the state counter that their ability to declare unlawful assemblies is an effective way to prevent violence, yet they do think changes should be made to the language in the law.
Under the law, police or sheriff’s deputies or any chief executive officer in Oregon such as a mayor or county — can command dispersal when five or more people, whether armed or not, are “unlawfully or riotously assembled” in any city, county, town or village.
If people are commanded to leave an area and don’t immediately do so, the law also says, “The officer must arrest them or cause them to be arrested” and they may be punished by law.
Kelly Simon, interim legal director of the ACLU of Oregon, said the law doesn’t define what constitutes an unlawful assembly and gives police too much discretion. It’s been more frequently used against left-wing demonstrators than against right-wing demonstrators in Oregon, she said.
Simon told lawmakers that a separate statute allows for the criminal charge of riot, so the state doesn’t need the unlawful assembly statute.
A person commits riot under state law if they’re participating with five or more people “engaged in tumultuous and violent conduct” and intentionally or recklessly creating “a grave risk of causing public alarm.”
House Bill 3059, sponsored by state Rep. Janelle Bynum, D- Clackamas, at the request of the ACLU, is one of a number of police reform and criminal justice proposals introduced this legislative session. The House Subcommittee on Equitable Policing held a hearing on it Monday morning.
Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner, representing the state police chiefs’ and sheriffs’ associations, said unlawful assembly declarations allow police to move a crowd before extreme violence occurs.
The declarations are usually made by incident commanders or a chief in a police command center – not officers on the ground, he said.
[READ: 5 steps of riot prep: How to do crowd control correctly]
For example, he said Eugene police declared an unlawful assembly in early January and broke up a crowd of about 70 people as officers attempted to intervene and arrest six people fighting in the middle of a Eugene street. That occurred days after the Jan. 6 takeover of the U.S. Capitol, Skinner said.
Dispersing the crowd was necessary, he said, to allow officers to safely move in to make arrests and helped “defuse” a volatile situation.
Police chiefs and sheriffs highlighted as a problem, though, the law’s clause that says police “must arrest” people who don’t disperse once an order is given.
“There’s no chance we would ever do that,” Skinner told lawmakers.
Michael Selvaggio, lobbyist for the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs, echoed the need for amending the law.
“Simply being caught in the middle of a riot shouldn’t be automatic means for arrest,” Selvaggio said.
That’s been a common complaint in Portland among people who have sued the city and Police Bureau or the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, arguing that they were unfairly targeted with less-lethal munitions for simply being bystanders.
Nick Chaiyachkakorn of Portland presented testimony calling the unlawful assembly dispersals “an ineffective shakedown tactic.”
“Every time I’ve seen law enforcement in Portland disperse unlawful assemblies, it has not brought peace but simply given cause for left and right to keep protesting and escalating the conflict,” he said in written testimony. “It exacerbates conflict, rather than resolves it.”
The House subcommittee will consider any amendments to the proposed bill and then forward it to the House Judiciary Committee for review. The goal is to have a group of bills addressing police violence and systemic racism that can be brought to the House and Senate floors by March, Bynum said.
(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)