Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw has had enough. In a news conference Wednesday, Outlaw called for “a better way” to address dueling protest groups in the city, and to give police more legal tools to combat and prevent the violence that frequently accompanies these events. Just one day after Communal News called for it, Outlaw asked for new laws that would ban the wearing of masks by demonstrators in the commission of crimes and permit the continual recording of protests. The legal director of the ACLU of Oregon responded, “we have a lot of concerns.”
In the 20-minute presser, Outlaw defended her officers, and her boss, Mayor Ted Wheeler, from criticism both in and out of state. “The officers have been called ‘cowards’ or there’s a perception that they ‘ran away’ from confrontation,” Outlaw said. “That couldn’t be the furthest from the truth.” While also rejecting the contention that officers were “handcuffed” by the Mayor, or some other entity, Outlaw did say that “rules of engagement” dictate that any intervention by police be done carefully, to protect the safety of both demonstrators and officers. She also addressed the high number of vacancies within the department and a lack of other resources at her disposal. Police officers are frequently outnumbered by Antifa demonstrators, so it doesn’t make sense to send in officers who could be injured, she said.
“We cannot allow people to continue to use the guise of free speech to commit a crime,” Outlaw said, in calling for new anti-masking laws. “A lot of people feel emboldened because they know they cannot be identified.” Outlaw further noted that Oregon law has very strict limits on when officers can record people, so she called for changes to that as well. “We can’t constantly record like the public does,” she said. “We’re only allowed to actually record when we believe there’s criminal activity that occurs.” The police have often been criticized in this regard for only having video of one set of protesters. Outlaw also called for a local ordinance to regulate the time, place, and manner of demonstrations by groups with a history of violence. Wheeler attempted to pass an ordinance to that effect last year, but the city council rejected it.
In response, Mat dos Santos, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon said, “we have a lot of concerns about any kind of policy that would be looking at something like masks as opposed to behavior.” There are many legitimate reasons why someone might wear a mask, dos Santos argued, such as illness or religious reasons, “or maybe they don’t want their landlord or their boss to know that they’re out protesting because they fear rightly First Amendment retaliation for their point of view.” Indeed, a Tigard Wells Fargo mortgage consultant was fired in March 2018, after he was discovered participating in multiple white supremacist rallies in Portland, and “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville.
As with most issues concerning free speech and expression rights, an anti-mask law would fall into a constitutional gray area. Some fifteen states, and several local governments, have such laws on the books. Most were enacted to combat the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Georgia’s Supreme Court upheld such a law, ruling that intimidation is not protected speech. Federal judges struck down an Indiana law on the grounds it infringed on a right to anonymous speech. Florida and Tennessee also saw state laws struck down for being unconstitutionally broad. So far, the Supreme Court of the United States has declined to weigh in. A spokesman for Mayor Wheeler said, “we will be engaging with community leaders to have more discussions on this. Nothing planned yet.”