Portland responded with force to racial justice protests, now Milwaukee may hire its deputy chief

Portland Police Bureau Deputy Chief Chris Davis. (Screenshot | @PortlandPolice Twitter)

Protesters in Portland and officers from the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) have violently clashed since protests against racial injustice sprung up across the country in late May. At the helm of the PPB’s day-to-day operations — as the city topped more than 100 straight days of protest — was Deputy Chief Chris Davis. 

Now, Davis is one of three finalists in the search for the Milwaukee Police Department’s next chief. 

This summer a lawsuit was brought against the Portland Police Bureau alleging officers used excessive force when responding to protests by indiscriminately using tear gas on protesters. A federal judge agreed. 

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“There is even evidence that some protesters were confronted with tear gas while trying to follow police orders and leave the demonstrations,” U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez wrote. “Given the effects of tear gas, and the potential deadly harm posed by the spread of COVID-19, Plaintiffs have established a strong likelihood that Defendant engaged in excessive force contrary to the Fourth Amendment.”

Despite the court order limiting the use of tear gas and other “less-lethal” ammunition, Portland officers responded to a protest outside the local police union building by deploying smoke grenades and rubber bullets, then after declaring a riot — tear gas. 

Now, the Portland Police Bureau and protest groups are back in court with the cops facing a potential contempt of court charge for disregarding the judge’s restraining order against the use of tear gas. 

 Tai Carpenter, president of Don’t Shoot Portland, the activist group that sued the police department, says Davis might not be in riot gear on the ground but he’s still responsible.

PORTLAND, OR – JULY 21:A federal officer tells the crowd to move while dispersing a protest in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse on July 21, 2020 in Portland, Oregon. State and city elected officials have called for the federal officers to leave Portland as clashes between protesters and federal police continue to escalate. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

“[In] my opinion, Chris Davis is part of the massive failure that is the PPB,” Carpenter says. “Good riddance but good luck to Milwaukee. They go hand in hand. He’s not down on the ground but it’s one in the same. He’s responsible for that, there’s blood on his hands.”

Almost a month after Hernandez issued his temporary restraining order, the City of Portland and protesters agreed to expand the order from restricting the use of tear gas to include pepper spray and rubber bullets.

The Oregon State Legislature also passed a law requiring officers to determine a “riot” is occurring and warn protesters before using tear gas — although Oregon law defines a riot as five people acting in a violent manner. 

All this happened with Davis as deputy chief, one of the highest ranking positions within the PPB. Davis only reports to PPB Chief Charles Lovell.

The Portland Police Bureau’s organizational chart. (PPB)

The use of tear gas and the restraining order occurred before the heavy presence of federal agents in Portland that drew national media coverage and presidential tweets. 

Jesse Merrithew, one of the lawyers in the lawsuit against the PPB, says Davis has been involved every step of the way when it comes to decision-making around the protests. 

“I think it is fair to say that [Deputy Chief] Davis has been intimately involved in plotting the course of PPB’s protest response from the very beginning,” Merrithew said. “He is the person who the city attorney most closely communicates with from PPB in getting the bureau’s position vis-à-vis our litigation. I would expect that he would defend all the various (failed) tactics PPB has used over the summer, but I cannot say that for sure.”

Merrithew also says Davis has displayed a “conspiracy-theory level of understanding about the organization of protests.” 

In press conferences Davis often attempted to outline the sophisticated and violent tactics used by Portland protesters. In July, he referred to an infographic of tactics used by people in Hong Kong protesting to remain autonomous from China — apparently ignoring the comparison he was making between the PPB and an authoritarian regime. 

In an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner, Davis says he makes a distinction between what is considered a protest and what has been happening in Portland. 

There are protests protected under the First Amendment and not really a law enforcement issue,” Davis says. “In Portland we had protests with ten or fifteen thousand people with no major issues other than some traffic control. I have noticed, just in general, there’s a tendency for people to equate protest with some of the civil unrest and the criminal activity we’ve seen in Portland.” 

Davis says throughout the summer PPB officers have had “frozen water bottles, commercial fireworks and fire bombs” thrown at them. In the early days of the protests, Milwaukee police claimed a Molotov cocktail was thrown at them, a claim that was later proven untrue

Davis acknowledges that if he’s going to get the job as Milwaukee police chief, he’ll need to address the police response to protests in Portland — though he said the issue didn’t come up in his first interview with the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission. 

He says he’ll need to work to introduce himself to Milwaukee’s activist community and understand the city’s history. 

“First I think you have to get to know the activist community,” Davis says. “It’s important to engage with our critics and listen to where they’re coming from and try to engage in dialogue wherever you can.”

In a community that has been skeptical of previous police chiefs, Davis sees how coming from Portland will raise some eyebrows — especially considering the lawsuits and potential violations of the Fourth Amendment. 

“If it’s an anti-police protest and you show up with a bunch of cops in riot gear, it might escalate the event,” Davis says. “We need to make sure we don’t take any action that tends to escalate a situation. It takes a lot of planning, nuance, training.” 

“Obviously the best way is not to violate people’s rights,” he continues.

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Davis wouldn’t talk about the specific incidents that brought the lawsuits, but he did say he wants to see an active and engaged community when it comes to these issues. 

“We’ve got a lot of vocal critics with the police here in Portland,” he says. “That level of criticism can benefit people. It forces you to be always looking for better ways of doing things because you always have that scrutiny. When you don’t have scrutiny you can get comfortable in ways that aren’t good for public safety service. The other thing it shows me is if you have that vocal criticism, that to me is an indicator you have a high level of interest and involvement with local government affairs. It shows you have a community that cares about what’s going on.”

The Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission did not respond to a request for comment.