Beginning in late May 2020, residents of Portland, Oregon took to the streets to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and hundreds of other Black people at the hands of police. In response, columns of police officers showered crowds with tear gas, baton blows, and other “less-lethal” weapons. Video, after video, after video documented the Portland Police Bureau’s actions, and federal agents who descended on the city even tear-gassed Portland’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, who is also the city’s police commissioner.
Nine months after the violence began, local police and federal law enforcement agencies continue to stonewall activists, elected officials, and journalists seeking documentation of officers’ actions in Portland and cities around the country.
In early June, as protests continued in many communities, Motherboard submitted public records requests to 22 police departments asking for documentation of police use of force and inventory logs listing the number of tear gas canisters, pepper spray containers, rubber bullets, and other weapons officers deployed from May 20 to June 10. To date, only two cities—Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio—have provided any response to those requests, and those are incomplete.
Portland and four other cities have rejected the requests outright, for a variety of reasons legal experts call questionable, while the remaining departments have simply ignored the requests.
The Portland Police Bureau told Motherboard that replying to the request would violate local laws because “the City is prohibited ... from using any City ‘moneys, equipment or personnel’ for the purpose of enforcement of federal immigration law. You have indicated that this public records request is to enforce federal immigration law.” Motherboard’s request had nothing to do with immigration or immigration enforcement.
Neither the Portland Police Bureau nor Mayor Wheeler’s office responded to requests for comment.
Freddy Martinez, a policy analyst for Open The Government and an expert on police misconduct and transparency, also filed a public records request with the Department of Homeland Security, asking for documentation of the chemical munitions its agents deployed in Portland. In response, DHS sent Martinez 63 pages of emails and equipment specifications in which virtually every piece of information relevant to the request was redacted, with the exception of one email subject line that states a protester was injured by a less-lethal projectile.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has also asked DHS and the Department of Justice for information about the chemical weapons their agents used in Portland, but has so far received no substantive response.
“By far, police departments are the worst violators of transparency laws across the country,” Martinez told Motherboard. “They’re supposed to be law enforcement, they’re supposed to be following the laws and enforcing them.”
Portland police are no exception. The Los Angeles Police Department told Motherboard it could not disclose inventory logs or use of force reports because they were investigatory files. Baltimore police said the records constituted emergency preparedness plans. Detroit police said Motherboard’s requests were too broad for the department to locate relevant records, and Denver police said disclosing that kind of information to the public would endanger officers.
None of those departments responded to requests for comment. But there is ample documentation of police in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Detroit, and Denver using chemical weapons, rubber bullets, batons, and fists on protestors.
Gunita Singh, a legal fellow specializing in government transparency for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Motherboard that over the last year she’s seen “egregious misapplications” of emergency preparedness public records law exemptions used by agencies in order to avoid disclosing potentially embarrassing information.
“Noncompliance with the letter and spirit of public records laws is still a problem—stemming either from lack of knowledge about the scope of the law, or a commitment to secrecy rather than sunlight,” she said.
The Columbus Police Department told Motherboard that from May 20 to June 10 its officers used: 325 tear gas canisters, 30 pepper spray blast balls, 90 pepper spray grenades, 20 pepper spray smoke grenades, 50 pepper spray “aerial signaling devices,” 150 sponge rounds, 650 wooden batons, 30 smoke grenades, and 25 aerosol grenades. The department did not respond to the portion of Motherboard’s request asking for use of force reports.
The Houston Police Department responded to Motherboard’s request with an email simply stating that “no gas canisters were deployed during the George Floyd protest response.” It did not acknowledge the baton beatings or use of pepper spray on protestors.
The Atlanta Police Department, meanwhile, sent Motherboard five use of force reports. APD said those were the only incidents its officers documented during the protests, despite six Atlanta police officers being charged with excessive use of force for attacking two students from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who were sitting in a car near a protest after picking up food. The department fired two of the officers within days.