Talking Beat - Demonstration Events: Behind the Scenes

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Every year the City of Portland has hundreds of demonstrations and protests. Most end peacefully and do not make the news, but recent violent encounters have raised the public interest as well as provide a few misconceptions.
Talking Beat - Demonstrations Behind the Scenes - August 2019

Every year the City of Portland has hundreds of demonstrations and protests. Most end peacefully and do not make the news, but recent violent encounters have raised the public interest as well as provide a few misconceptions. Go behind the scenes to find out what it takes to plan for and manage a large scale demonstration in the City of Portland.


Welcome to Talking Beat, the podcast for the Portland Police Bureau. We're focusing on thoughtful conversations that we hope will inform and provide you with a small glimpse of the work performed by Portland police officers as well as issues affecting public safety in our city. Here's what's on today's show.

Franz Schoening:
We have zero opinion about the ideology or politics or speech of these groups coming together. We address criminal behavior. Unfortunately, sometimes that criminal behavior is occurring in one area so we have to address that criminal behavior. We understand the narrative or the perception that may create from the community, and we do the best we can to mitigate that because we are watching everyone involved in these events, looking for criminal behavior. But that's where our focus is, and sometimes it's misinterpreted.

For this episode, we’ve gathered a panel of experts for a first-of-its kind podcast on crowd management. Every year the City of Portland has hundreds of demonstrations and protests. Most end peacefully and do not make the news, but recent violent encounters have raised the public interest as well as provide a few misconceptions. We want to provide a window into some of the extensive planning that occurs behind-the-scenes, the complexities of crowd management and what it feels like to be on the line. We’re going to start with planning and what goes into coordinating these events. Sergeant Marty Schell, is here with us.

Marty Schell:
I'm the police bureau's emergency manager. I've been with the police bureau for over 22 years. A large portion of my career has been spent around crowd events or free speech events.

Planning doesn't occur in a bubble. We use a nationally recognized system, the National Incident Management System. We use ICS, which is the Incident Command System.

In that, we're not the only people using that. What happens is it lets us be able work with all of our other partners because they too are also using the same systems to do this. It helps us so we can work with other partners within the City of Portland, such as the water bureau, the Bureau of Transportation, a lot of those other city bureaus or other outside agencies locally, the police and the fire agencies. Then federally, people like the Coast Guard, the EPA, they also use the same type of system to do their planning.

What I do is I facilitate the planning amongst this team and then a much larger team to coordinate and take what the incident commander wants to do and work that all the way down to what the people are actually going to do out in the field. We take the objectives that the incident commander has and we turn those into work assignments for the people to go out and actually do.

It is a very prescribed process of how we go about doing it. But it is flexible, and sometimes we have to be very flexible about how we're doing things, because not every one of these events will meet that kind of rigid planning procedure.

We not only plan for it, we work the day of the event, but then we also help with the capturing of the lessons learned through the after-action process so we can get better at these as we go.

Commander Wendi Steinbronn is also here. She is also the commander at North Precinct—which is her day job. Commander Steinbronn is the incident commander on many of these events and has 25 years with the Portland Police Bureua and more than 200 hours of training in crowd management. Commander Steinbronn, what factors affect our planning?

Wendi Steinbronn:
Prior to the event, we usually get information, and it could be from the media, social media. Maybe the precinct commander calls and says that they have information about an event, or through the permits office, we'll get information about an upcoming event.

Then we do a size up. We seek information on who's coming. Is it permitted or not? Is there a person in charge that we can reach out to and get more information about the event? When is it going to happen? What time? What location? What is the purpose of the event? If they plan on having a march, is that permitted to have the street or do they plan on marching on the sidewalk? Either one, we would have to have a plan to facilitate it and make sure people don't get hit by cars or they don't interrupt traffic, and a crowd size estimate.

Sometimes we get three weeks' notice and we'll start the planning process right away. For larger events, sometimes we get more, especially for planned events. I want to also point out that precincts, especially Central Precinct, they have many spontaneous events that come up that they'll call me, they'll give me the size up is what we call it, and it's something that's not going to require incident command, it's not going to require rapid response team be called out. They manage those within their precinct resources.

Once I get that information, we go into our first of what we call the strategy meeting. That's part of the ICS system that Sergeant Schell mentioned. During that, I'll set my priorities and objectives after consulting with the assistant chief of operations to verify that they want an incident commander and RRT called out for the event. I'll give the priorities and objectives, what we call the commander's intent. I give that through my chain of command, through the assistant chief of operations, who then consults the deputy chief and the chief on anything that they want changed or added.

My priorities for crowd events are usually pretty much the same thing. There's four priorities. Number one is always life safety. Number two is always facilitating free speech. Number three is protection of property. Then number four would be information management, situational awareness prior to and during the event so that I can make the best decisions possible.

Once we determine that, as part of the strategy meeting, we look at past history. Have these groups come together before? If so, what happened, if anything? Has there been any violence when these groups have come to demonstrate before? Are there other events in the city going on the same day that we have to basically take into account and if any of those are going to overlap into the planned demonstration? Is there any opposition to the event? That's a big one. What actions or activities do we anticipate?

Then once we determine that in the strategy meeting, typically the team goes into the tactics meeting where the operations chief, who is the person that's basically on the radio that day, we sit next to each other in the command post. I determine the overall strategy for the event. The operations chief is the one that is giving directions over the radio. They determine the tactics along with the rapid response team commander, the planning section chief, and our logistics section chief.

I designate the demonstration liaison teams to reach out to the groups before the event to see if we can set expectations that we have of how people should behave during the event. Then gather any information from them as to what they would like to see, how they would like to see the event go.

The official planning cycle, after we have the strategy meeting and the tactics meeting, we determine how many resources we need to manage the event safely, what type of resources, whether it'd be RRT, mobile field force. Do we need Parks Bureau to close certain sections of a park? Do we need a dump trucks to haul away debris? That type of thing.

Again, as Sergeant Schell mentioned, we use all city bureaus, parks, PBOT. The mayor's office is obviously very closely involved in this. We order up the resources and then finish determining the tactical plan based on what resources we have available that day. Then we go into writing the incident action plan, which is a document that we use to manage the event.

How do you manage the event while it’s occurring? How do you determine your resources?

Wendi Steinbronn:
During the event, we continue communicating between the incident management team, our agency representatives, resources in the field, and we do this by talking on the radio, live stream media events. When the media live streams events, we have that in the command post to view as well. We pay attention to what's going on, what the different coverages are. There are even people that have their own YouTube channels that go out and broadcast live during the events. We monitor those, too.

The purpose of that is basically to get a good picture of what's going on. I may have police resources in this one area, but there may be something going on blocks away. If somebody's live streaming that, I get to kind of take that into my decision-making.

Decisions are based on crowd dynamic, size, demeanor, and the potential for violence. Basically, the behavior people are engaging in will determine what we do. After the event, we conduct a debriefing that day, we call it the hot wash, where we get all the supervisors back in the room after we've demobilized all the resources, the event is over for the most part. We get the supervisors in, we do a briefing. What went well? What could have went better?

I take all that into consideration then I write a report that's subject to public record. There's a police report of my role in the event. Then within about 10 to 14 days, we conduct our after-action review, and that goes from the planning section chief all the way up to the chief's office

As Commander Steinbronn discussed, a lot goes into the planning. But even prior to an event, the Bureau spends a lot of time training. Captain Craig Dobson is a 21-year-veteran at the Police Bureau who has approximately 18 years of crowd management experience including five years as the special event sergeant in charge of planning. He’s also an instructor for FEMA, the Center of Domestic Preparedness and has taught around the U.S. Captain Dobson, talk a little bit about training for officers.

Craig Dobson:
In order to be successful in any of those events, we have to be well-trained. We have to have good planning to prepare for those events. Then during the events, we have to be able to make timely and smart decisions. Then have proper execution of those decisions on the street and finally have good partnerships

I think one of the perceptions is that our training is limited to teaching officers to stand on a line and how to use their equipment and what the laws are to arrest people. But, over time, that has involved, and so it's far more complicated than that today.

When we teach crowd control, we teach it to all of our sworn members. Those members are trained not only to understand those things that I just spoke about, but we in-depth talk about why do people demonstrate. Why are we there and what is our purpose and role there?

We talk about the history of protesting here in the United States and the effects of those things that happen here in the United States. We talk about decision-making and provide officers and all sworn staff with a model of how to make decisions by taking in information and processing that information, looking at the risks and assessing those risks, applying the laws that are applicable, and then making decisions and contingency plans to make the right decisions.

We also talk about crowd behavior theories as well as social identity theories, to talk about how people interact within crowds and what causes people to do certain things or act in certain ways, and the effect that we have in those things as well.

We spend time talking about case studies, case law so that we understand what the law, the current laws are and what our abilities are to help keep the peace in times of demonstrations. We also teach the incident command system, which is based on FEMA's National Incident Management System of how to respond and how it gives us structure.

We spend time talking about communication and the importance of communication, how do we communicate not only with those that are demonstrating, but with the public in large so that we can keep everyone safe and everyone understanding what it is that we're attempting or trying to do during those events. We spend time talking about de-escalation and legitimacy. How do we be part of the community and continue to be legitimate and have legitimacy in those events?

So in addition to patrol officers working these events in a variety of assignments, from regular uniform to bike officers to what we call Mobile Field Forces, we also have the Rapid Response Team and they have additional training.

Lieutenant Franz Schoening oversees the Tactical Operations Division which includes the Rapid Response Team. He also has a background in the Incident Command System and has served as Operations Section Chief for many crowd events.

The Rapid Response Team is comprised of Bureau members who have full-time jobs, but agree to serve in this capacity and go through extra training. Though they are compensated for their time, they do not receive anything additional—no premium pay as other assignments might receive.

Lt. Schoening, talk a little bit about the Rapid Response Team and what additional training they receive.

Franz Schoening:
We specialize in training for all types of emergencies. Clearly, our main role that you see in the public is crowd control. But we deal with hazmat incidents, we deal with search and rescue type incidents, we deal with a variety of things.

We train rigidly with our partners, whether it's other law enforcement agencies, the fire bureau, the National Guard, for all types of emergencies. An example would be the tire fire at Killingsworth and Cully a few years ago. That was a fire bureau incident that they managed, but they asked for our assistance with maintaining a perimeter, doing evacuations. In order to do that safely, we had members who have additional training in hazmat operations, additional experience and protective equipment for hazmat operations. They were able to deploy and help the fire bureau protect the City of Portland and the people in that community.

All of our members go through 30 hours of basic crowd management and crowd control training that we conduct with our regional partners. The reason we do that is so that we all understand what the other agencies are doing. We all learn how to work together, use the same principles for managing these events.

In addition to that, we have supervisors and grenadiers who are the ones that use the munitions you see out there sometimes during crowd control incidents. They go through an additional 30 hours of training on how to do that safely, how to deploy those munitions properly.

In addition, every year, our rapid response team members go through an additional 40 to 60 hours of in-service training. Again, that's all types of hazards and emergencies. We conduct that training in conjunction with our partners as well.

Our role for these incidents, as Commander Steinbronn pointed out, the incident commander sets the overall objectives for the incident. The operations section chief takes those objectives and crafts strategies and tactics for how to manage the event. They pass those on to the rapid response team members out in the field to carry out those missions. Again, it could be crowd management or crowd control. It just depends on what their priorities or directions are.

We like to stay in the area of crowd management as low level as we can, but sometimes the actions of the crowd, or members within the crowd, dictate that we shift to more crowd control. We address criminal behavior, not the content of people's speech, their ideology, any of that stuff. We have no opinion about what they're there for. We address criminal behavior that's going on in front of us.

What are some of the challenges the Team faces and talk to us about the gear—because I think people see that and it’s a little frightening sometimes.

Some of the challenges we face is, number one, keeping everybody safe, and that includes our own members. Frequently, when we see ourselves portrayed in the media, you'll see our officers are dressed in what you call riot gear. We call it protective equipment, personal protective equipment.

There are a variety of ranges of personal protective equipment. Every patrol officer who goes out to work the street has protective equipment on. It ranges from our ballistic vests to uniforms to hazmat gear to additional helmets or padding that you would call riot gear. There's a wide range that we use during these events, and it's focused solely on keeping our members safe.

Unfortunately, during these events, we've had people throw objects at our police officers, everything from liquids to bricks and bottles and water bottles and fireworks. When we send our members out to do this job that they're volunteering to do, it's our obligation to keep them safe.

Part of the planning process for these events is that the incident commander will look at the information available and, in consultation with the operations section chief and the rapid response team commander, will decide what officers wear when they're going out on the field. It could be standard uniforms, it could be bicycle gear, it could be full protective equipment, again, that you would call riot gear. But the point is to keep the members safe.

We get asked a lot why we don’t make more arrests. Why we only arrest people from a certain ideological group. And often we get asked why we can’t go in and arrest the one person who is violent?

Unfortunately, it's difficult do that safely. Traditionally, the people that are engaging in criminal activity do so from behind the first several rows of people who are just there engaging in speech with the police.

It's difficult for us to communicate that to the rest of the crowd. We do the best we can with a sound truck, but to go in and put hands on that person and arrest them safely without inflaming the rest of the crowd, because really they don't understand what we're trying to do, who we're trying to go in to arrest. We do the best we can, but sometimes it's just not safe to try and grab the one person or five people or 20 people that are engaging in criminal violent activity.

We also are challenged in this ongoing perception or narrative that we are biased for one side or the other during these events. We're not, I assure you. I work intimately with all the members of my team. We have zero opinion about the ideology or politics or speech of these groups coming together.

We address criminal behavior. Unfortunately, sometimes that criminal behavior is occurring in one area of the event, and so we have to address that criminal behavior. We understand the narrative or the perception that may create from the community, and we do the best we can to mitigate that because we are watching everyone involved in these events, looking for criminal behavior. But that's where our focus is, and sometimes it's misinterpreted.

Also, we fight the perception that we allow criminal behavior or assault to take place during these events. I think the chief has spoken on this at length. But there are times when the resources we have right there in the moment are not sufficient to safely go in and make an arrest or take action. We're absolutely doing the best we can to keep people safe, and we're calling for additional resources and trying to get people there to take action.

Frankly, sometimes there's so much going on that even if you have an officer standing near an assault that's taking place, there's so much going on, they're paying attention to so many things they may not perceive what initially is happening during that assault.

By the time they notice it's going on and they're trying to evaluate whether there's crime occurring, who the primary aggressor is, they're trying to figure out if they can safely go in and take action, communicating up the chain of command to the incident command post what's happening and calling for additional resources, by the time we get all that done, it's over, and the best we can do is try and track that person who we believe committed a crime as they leave that area to make an arrest afterwards. Sometimes the best we can do is document that and try to make an arrest following the event, which we've also done

What do we do to de-escalate a crowd?

Franz Schoening:
Every event is different, and we attempt to de-escalate every event. For some events, we'll have officers who are out there in the crowd in their normal uniforms or in bike uniforms, because sometimes our presence helps de-escalate the event. For other events, if the group is clearly anti-police or anti-government, then our presence will make things worse.

When we can, we'll remove ourselves from that event, when we're able to, to de-escalate it. Sometimes we don't have the choice. We can't leave, because if we leave, other criminal activity will take place, and so that option's taken off the table. But every event, our choices are tailored to that event.

How do we communicate with crowds and are we trying anything new?

Wendi Steinbronn:
I think one of the things that we're developing now and have been using for the past year is the use of the police liaison team, or we call them the demonstration liaison team. Depending on the number of groups, we will assign teams of two officers each, and they will be assigned to that group to reach out to any group organizer, any self-proclaimed leader, the permit holder if they have a permit, and talk with them ahead of time about what they expect to happen, what are their expectations, and setting expectations from us about, "These are the things that we'd like you to do. If you plan on marching, we'd like you to get a permit. But if you're not going to get a permit, we'd like you to at least tell us what the route is so that we can safely facilitate blocking off traffic for you," those types of things. I think talking and developing that ahead of time goes a lot towards managing the event.

Craig Dobson:
What we try to encourage people to do is to self-police themselves. If they've said, "We're going to take this route," we want them to stay on that route. When we start seeing things happen where they maybe have an agitator or something is going on where they're maybe not following the route that they've stated with us, we're going to reach out to them and encourage them to self-police themselves and try to maintain that amongst themselves so that the police don't have to be there to help manage that.

At some point, though, what happens is when we start determining that the risks are starting to outweigh our ability to be able to communicate with the group or the group itself to be able to control itself, then you'll start to see us start moving in and putting officers on streets to block and help direct that crowd. That's our next step.

If that works, great, and we'll try to let that go. Then we'll back off from that if it starts to flow again and work for us and it looks like they're able to get back under control ... Or not under control, but are able to control themselves and keep it peaceful.

If that doesn't work, then we have to start looking at maybe making arrests and pulling those people that are acting out and doing criminal actions. Then we'll start removing those

What about weapons? People often bring weapons and we get asked alot what we can do to disarm people.

That's what adds a lot of the complexity that we have here, weapons in particular. If we don't talk about firearms, let's talk about other weapons. We have a city code that allows us to seize weapons when we can find them and see them. Basically what we do is we'll go in, if it's safe for us to do so. Go in and seize that weapon, write a property receipt, and that person can then come pick up that weapon at the end of the event.

The challenge being that a lot of the things that people bring to these events are weapons that they can easily conceal. We might not have any knowledge of what and who is bringing those events. When we prepare for these events, we're looking at all of the information that we can have, open source-wise, to say are there groups out there talking about bringing weapons? We'll start that conversation.

We work with our city attorneys as advisors, as well as the DA's office, to help advise us on what laws we can enforce and what we can't enforce at that time. It gets sometimes really sticky because certain laws apply and certain don't apply.

When you talk about firearms, then it gets more difficult because if you have a CCW, you can go in certain places, and that's okay as long as it's unloaded based on the city code. But you can't bring them into other places because according to ... If you're at a federal park, you can't carry that.

There's a myriad of laws that we have to sift through. Then when we encounter different weapons, we have to make that decision of can we seize it? Is it safe for us to seize at that point in time? At times, it's okay for people ... Because of the law, they can carry certain weapons. Legally, we have no right to be able to take them depending on the circumstances.

They're lawful and legal. It just means that we're going to keep an eye on that, because there are situations where that person might lose that weapon to someone else. It becomes very tenuous for us to carefully monitor those people that we know are carrying weapons to ensure that it stays safe.

Captain Dobson, you’ve studied crowd behavior a lot. What have you learned and what do you say to people who think police favor some groups over others?

Again, we focus on criminality. What we try to teach is that the old thought processes of mob mentality are debunked and that people act as individuals within a group. They can be influenced, but they act as individuals and they don't lose their cognitive ability to make decisions on their own. Again, they're not the Borg or zombies that just walk around and carry their pitch fork and torch, but that they work as groups.

Because of that, it's important for us to communicate with them. The more communication we can work with them to explain why we're doing what we're doing based on what we're seeing helps us build that legitimacy and work with them, so that they know and they can trust us to know that we're there not necessarily to take away their away First Amendment right, but that we're there to keep them safe and remove criminality amongst that group.

We don't treat groups differently. We treat them all the same.

Final thoughts? Captain Dobson?

When we prepare, we prepare always hoping for the best, but we prepare for the worst, whatever that information is. Most of the time, it comes out great and everybody goes home and there's no problems, whatsoever, which is how we, again, focus on that goal of keeping everybody safe.

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