EW reporter Henry Houston was one of the many citizens tear gassed by the police on May 31. Photo by Dana Sparks/The Register-Guard.

Policing in a Crisis

EPD talks policing practices after George Floyd’s murder, residents then see police in action at weekend protests

On Sunday night, hours after the start of the May 31 Black Lives Matter rally outside the Wayne Morse Federal Courthouse, a group of 20 people marched along Patterson Street. “Don’t shoot, hands up!” they chanted as Eugene Police Department followed along in a convoy led by a BearCat. 

EPD responded to the chants with a notice of the curfew, and ordered the group to go home. When that didn’t work, EPD shot at the protesters with what’s called PepperBall, a gun that fires balls filled with powdered pepper spray. 

The Sunday late night march ended as police herded the protesters to an open parking lot where they then threw tear gas canisters.

As police nationwide struggle with growing protests over police brutality toward people of color, police tactics have dominated conversations. Before the weekend protests, EPD Chief Chris Skinner told Eugene Weekly that Eugene police usually engage in de-escalation tactics. But critics say what happened between Friday, May 29, and Sunday, May 31, shows a different police response. And this anger has left some wondering if there should be a future without the police . 

Skinner says on Friday night, when a group of people gathered downtown for a protest that later ended in stores being looted and vandalized, he didn’t have officers immediately engage those doing the damage because police needed to develop a strategy first. 

After that night, Skinner says that he recommended that City Manager Pro Tem Sarah Medary implement a curfew for the weekend. However, he says he wishes he had extended the Sunday night curfew sooner; at 10:59 pm Sunday, the city notified the public that the curfew would be expanded citywide at 11 pm. 

Saturday night, police engaged with protesters in more peaceful ways — that is, with less riot weaponry. But on Sunday, police began using the PepperBall guns.

Skinner says increased use of riot weaponry on Sunday night was based on reports that some protesters were banging on light poles and police equipment with hammers. 

However, one protester who was active downtown that night, Marek Belka, says he only knew of one person with a hammer, and the group was otherwise peaceful.

“The PepperBall is less invasive to get people to go home,” Skinner says, adding that officers are supposed to fire at the ground so the pepper spray lofts to the protester. 

He says the PepperBall is a police tactic to avoid the traditional police armed with riot gear. According to EPD’s policies on using the PepperBall projectiles, police officers are told not to aim for the face, eye, neck or groin. 

However, one video captured by Tre Stewart, who live streamed most of the weekend’s events, shows EPD driving by and shooting someone in the face with the PepperBall weapon. 

When videos started circulating on social media of EPD shooting the powdered pepper spray at protesters Sunday night, EW emailed the police department. 

The curfew doesn’t state protesters could expect tear gas or the powdered pepper spray, but EPD spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin says police try to disperse protesters when they block traffic, break curfew or commit crimes. 

“When they fail to comply, they become subject to arrest and the CS and/or OC may be deployed,” she adds in the email. CS is a kind of tear gas and OC is pepper spray. 

Various international treaties ban the use of these forms of tear gas in warfare, and EW reached out to the ACLU of Oregon about EPD’s push for a curfew and weapons used to disperse protesters. 

“Oregon has seen largely peaceful demonstrations marching through its streets, including in Eugene,” says interim legal director Kelly Simon. “We are appalled at Eugene’s dangerous use of chemical and impact munitions on media, protesters and others. Health experts warn that the use of tear gas can have long-term effects on respiratory function. Eugene should end the use of curfews and end its state violence.”

Before the Friday night protest-turn-looting happened, Skinner talked with EW about how EPD engages policing. 

He said the way the Minneapolis officer pinned down and killed George Floyd is in general not a police-approved tactic. And EPD is always observing body cam feeds, as well as an early intervention system that flags an officer who might need a closer look. 

And Skinner said he’s committed to hiring people of high character because about 90 percent of the job is dealing with well-meaning people. 

“Let’s teach them to be police officers,” he said. “For me, I’m looking for men and women of all ethnicities and thinkers and tremendous empathy.”

He added that police undergo continuous training, and each officer has a certain amount of annual hours dedicated to training. This includes de-escalation, but he says training also has to include things like weapons use.  

And if bystanders see police engaging in aggressive tactics, Skinner said it’s best to record officers in action. Police officers should not expect to have privacy, he adds; you forfeit that when you join the force.

Public recordings of police offer context when officers investigate controversial encounters, he says. Bystander recordings give more context to the body cam footage. 

Civil Liberties Defense Center offers regular “Know Your Rights” sessions. Cooper Brinson, an attorney at the local nonprofit, says it’s best to record police from at least six feet away (given social distancing guidelines) but preferably more. And when a police officer says “move back,” he recommends people move back at least five steps or five feet. Recording from a distance gives more environmental context anyway, he adds. 

A 2019 study published by the National Academy of Sciences journal found that black men in the U.S. have a one-in-1,000 chance of being killed by the police — meaning more people of color could join names like George Floyd of Minneapolis, Breona Taylor of Louisville or Tony McDale of Tallahassee. And the chance of getting killed increases around the ages of 20 to 35 years old In the study, the authors say police violence should be treated as a public health concern. 

So what could a privileged white person do to help a person of color if a police officer is acting overly aggressive? 

Skinner said people shouldn’t intervene because bystanders don’t know the whole situation, and they might be arrested. 

Brinson agrees. Although there is some legal support in stopping a police from unnecessarily killing someone, successfully fighting the interference in court is an uphill battle — and you can’t really interfere without facing legal or physical threat from the police. 

But at Sunday’s Black Lives Matter rally, many attendees see a solution in abolishing the police and the prison system. 

Candice King, a person of color who ran for City Council in May, says she believes in abolishing the institution of policing and prisons. 

“I am more on the left spectrum. I don’t like prisons or arresting people,” she tells EW. “Arresting one murderer after the fact doesn’t stop future murderers from becoming cops.”

And Brinson says it’s time to start a conversation about it. 

“All the other conversations regarding training have been had for the past 20-plus years,” he says. “People are starting to make conclusions and pointing toward a potential future that doesn’t include police.”

Reporter Henry Houston was hit in the chest with a tear gas canister lobbed at him by an EPD officer while reporting on the May 31 protest. Additional reporting for this story by Camilla Mortensen.

This article has been updated.

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