A protester gestures at police at Pioneer Square in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 11, 2016. (Ankur Dholakia/Getty Images)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon sent a letter to the Portland Police Bureau on Wednesday addressing concerns about the bureau’s current crowd-control policies when responding to protests.

In the letter (pdf) addressed to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland Police Bureau Chief Michael Marshman, the ACLU notes that the Crowd Control Workgroup of the Citizen Review Committee found that “Portland has a very engaged and activist-minded citizenry.”

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There are numerous public marches and large crowds in Portland each year, and the ACLU believes that these public assemblies enrich the fabric of Portland by providing “a means of expression when people feel unheard through other methods; a beacon of solidarity and connection for people impacted by the issues subject to protest; a vehicle to spark conversations and debate about important issues; and an opportunity to form community and connections, leading to constructive engagement, organizing and action.”

The letter says that Portland cannot sustain these important benefits without police policies that support and don’t suppress First Amendment expression. The CRC found that there is a history of confrontation between Portland police and the public involved in protest activity, so the ACLU is making suggestions for improvements to the proposed police directive on crowd management and crowd control.

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The ACLU letter suggests such things as changes in the definition of “crowd control” and when such measures should be used; reinforces the definitions of the First Amendment right to assemble, with or without a permit; and differentiates between “crowd control” and “crowd management.”

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The ACLU also notes that it is not the job of police to discuss the “purpose” or “intent” of a free speech activity with organizers because this type of inquiry could reasonably be interpreted as an impermissible prior restraint on speech.

The letter also urges police to rethink the use of riot gear and militarized police because of “current social science showing that the use of militarized police or ‘hard gear’ leads to escalation and not de-escalation, and that Portland Police Bureau’s ‘show of force’ creates violence instead of suppressing it.”

From the ACLU letter:

In particular, the ACLU objects to the ambiguous and broad use of the term “peace and order” (and similar language) in the definitions and throughout the directive. The ACLU has substituted the language used in the crowd control definition (“public health, safety and welfare”). This ensures against the policy conflating threats to public safety with lawful, constitutionally protected activity that some may perceive as disruptive or disorderly.

The Portland Police Bureau is a good start, but it would be helpful to see this type of ACLU feedback go national. Police everywhere respond to a certain type of protester (black) in a certain type of way (violent and aggressive), and if the ACLU suggested these changes on a national level, it might help put these responses in perspective and bring about positive change.

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But for now, let’s work with Portland and see what happens.

Read more at the ACLU of Oregon (pdf).