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Police behavior should be examined

Portland was not another Charlottesville. Despite all the ingredients for a violent confrontation between right-wing Patriot Prayer demonstrators and counter-protesters on Saturday, Portland escaped without the loss of life that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, when, officials say, a neo-Nazi deliberately plowed his car into a crowd of protesters. And instead of the brawling that has marked past clashes between right-wing marchers and anti-fascists in Portland, police successfully enforced an uneasy peace by maintaining a no-go zone between the two sides.

But the city hasn’t escaped injury.

While Portland Police as a whole did a commendable job of managing a near-impossible situation, reports of serious wounds from police “flash bang grenades” and videos of some officers’ use of force deserve prompt and thorough investigation.

Among the disturbing cases reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive and other media organizations after police ordered the crowd to disperse: one female counter-protester who appeared to be leaving the area was yanked to the ground by a police officer who grabbed the poster she was carrying. After she got up, other officers piled on. And a male counter-protester sustained a head injury after officers fired a flash-bang grenade that lodged in his helmet, according to the man’s friend.

Certainly, police were operating amid chaos. Some of that stems from the subset of counter-protesters who were intent on wreaking havoc, whether it was on Patriot Prayer members or the police. Individuals in the crowd pelted officers and others, including Oregonian/OregonLive reporter Eder Campuzano, with projectiles. But some of the chaos resulted from police officers themselves, who, according to reporters’ accounts, gave little time for the crowd to disperse before lobbing the disorienting flash-bang grenades and rushing people in the crowd.

But chaos and obnoxious behavior from some protesters don’t relieve police officers of the responsibility to act professionally and respect personal rights as they aim to protect public safety. With the bureau’s mixed record of handling protests, Chief Danielle Outlaw’s promise to investigate allegations of misconduct and suspend use of flash-bang grenades is a welcome and necessary one.

She shouldn’t stop there. She should also review other methods for crowd control, favoring tactics that ease compliance with police requests rather than alarm or intimidate people into a panicked reaction.

It’s worth noting that Outlaw’s conduct in the aftermath of the protests has been an encouraging sign of her leadership style. Despite sharp criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and others, she has owned responsibility for the police bureau’s response. She has defended her officers’ overall performance while standing front and center to hear complaints. She has talked publicly and acted decisively. In other words, she’s showing what accountability looks like. Her actions send a reassuring message to those concerned about these protests and bode well for relations between police and community members in the future.

But last weekend’s protests also leave a question for Portlanders to answer. What will they do if — or likely when — Patriot Prayer decides to troll Portland by protesting here again? Is an in-your-face response to Patriot Prayer members really the best way to counter their specious rantings? Should Portlanders reward their extremism by treating them with credibility that they don’t merit?

There are other ways to drown out messages of intolerance and hate. It starts by Portlanders setting their own agenda rather than giving outside agitators that control.

Portlanders show time and again that this is a city that values inclusion, compassion and tolerance. They show this through the priorities they fund, the leaders they elect and the peaceful gatherings that they organize. They do this in staging their own demonstrations, away from attention-hungry gimmick groups, that emphasize Portland’s beliefs. They don’t do this as well when their primary purpose is to physically shout down the opposition.

It’s telling that while the high-profile Patriot Prayer protest and counter-protest drew several hundred people last weekend, the June 30 Families Belong Together rally supporting immigrants drew several thousand. There were families, not flash-bang grenades. There was a clear message of what this city and its residents stand for and support. And there was a feeling of solidarity and faith that this city’s values will endure.

That is how Portland fights back.