By Shane Hoffmann and Taylor Perse
The Eugene Police Civilian Review Board met virtually Dec. 15 to discuss its investigation of the actions of Eugene police during protests responding to the killing of George Floyd. The board found five of the six cases alleging police misconduct to be within policy.
The CRB — a group of appointed citizens who provide input on police investigations — took an in-depth look at six complaints of misconduct and use of force between EPD, protesters and a journalist over the weekend of May 29-31. Police first responded after buildings were vandalized on May 29, and again the following days after protesters violated citywide curfews.
Throughout the meeting, the board deliberated over definitions of the word riot, the justification to use PepperBalls and CS aka tear gas canisters, and the learning curve of local police over the course of the protests. They found all but one use-of-force action was within policy and recommended that some approaches need to be changed.
“We are reviewing investigations of actions committed against people,” board member Michael Hames-García said.
Board members said in preparation for the meeting, they pored over hours of body cam footage, as well as extensive case books and briefings. The incident reviews looked at the weekend as a whole with scrutiny of a select group of incidents.
“We quickly realized this was a bigger project than we had ever encountered,” Deputy Police Auditor Leia Pitcher said.
Each case investigated featured three decision points: agreeing or disagreeing with Police Chief Chris Skinner’s adjudication, offering any recommendations and opting to reopen the case based on an inadequate adjudication. No cases were reopened.
Many board members prefaced their thoughts recognizing that the protests were the largest in Eugene in the last decade and that many officers were not prepared or properly trained for an event of that magnitude.
The first case, which took place on the night of May 31, detailed an officer’s use of a 40mm rubber bullet launcher against four individuals. The case included four use of excessive force allegations with the 40mm rounds targeting four unidentified protesters and one who was later arrested. Skinner decided that each officer was within policy.
Police Auditor Mark Gissiner later told EW, “the board disagreed with the chief and agreed with my recommendations of sustained on three of the four allegations by a vote of 4-3.” He said there was a caveat in one instance the first sponge round was in policy but not the second.
Board member José Cortez questioned the meaning and use of language and how that could play a role in outcomes such as these allegations.
“I want to put myself in the shoes of people who might be demonstrating peacefully and given orders like ‘move,’” he said. “What does move mean? Does move mean this way or that way?”
Several members also commented on the lack of body cameras on SWAT officers, insisting that if there is money for gear and weapons, cameras are a necessity as the absence can make cases such as these difficult to parse out.
After nearly 40 minutes of discourse, the board members came to their decision. Although it was a mixed bag of opinions surrounding the question of whether the officers were in policy, no members opted to reopen the incident.
The CRB was quicker in deliberating the rest of the case reviews. In case No. 3, the board discussed an incident where officers stood in a line pushing people out of downtown which led to an officer pushing a woman down with his baton, causing her to fall. The complaint alleged that the officer used excessive force.
Hames-García argued that protesters refusing to move should be considered passive resistance since their actions are not necessarily causing harm to another person or property. The majority voted the action was within police policy and Cortez abstained.
In case review four, the CRB discussed the May 31 incident in which an officer struck Eugene Weekly reporter Henry Houston with a canister of CS gas out of the turret of a BearCat. In their public discussion, the CRB does not use names of individuals or officers involved in complaints. The allegation was that the officer used excessive force in striking Houston. The police auditor, police chief and the board unanimously sustained that the action violated policy.
During the deliberation, board member Bernadette Conover alleged that the person involved in the incident wasn’t wearing anything that indicated they were a journalist, even though the Register-Guard video footage of the event showed the reporter holding up a press pass and shouting he was a journalist.
Cortez said the entire scene was unnecessary, regardless of the reporter’s involvement.
“This looks unnecessary to me. It doesn’t look like there needed to be CS gas fired at this person in the parking lot at a university campus,” Cortez said. “It underscores the calls to abolish the use of CS gas.” He emphasized that he was not commenting on what the officer or journalist were thinking at the moment because it would be impossible for him to do so.
The other two cases covered the use of PepperBalls and the judgment of an officer directing others to disperse a crowd of protesters. The CRB found these incidents within policy as well, but pointed out that PepperBalls may not be an effective way to disperse crowds.
In a closing statement, Hames-García urged the board to understand where protesters were coming from and listed all major protests across the country from the last 50 years.
“Americans don’t just riot because we want to riot. Americans riot almost exclusively to protest police brutality in their own community or someone else’s community,” he said. “And I think a highly militarized response to those protests misses so much of what those riots are about.”
For more details, watch a recording of the four-hour meeting here: https://youtu.be/eKVQeP7ahNc.
This story has been updated to clarify names and areas where the audio on the meeting was unclear.