The right to assemble and freedom of speech are stipulated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The summer of 2020 will be remembered for American citizens all over the country exercising those rights. People of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, and in all states, took to the streets to march and speak out against racism and police brutality. The United States saw millions of people protesting over that summer, more than ever before in history. 

Keeping the peace

Protesters in bigger cities were frequently met by police, often with riot gear, who were there to keep the peace, establish boundaries, and/or protect government buildings. Most protests were nonviolent, but some people looted businesses, vandalized buildings, burned cars, and started fires. These protesters were the exception, but it happened. It seems logical that the nonviolent protests would be met by peace-keeping police officers, and that the behavior of looting and burning would be met by police officers with riot gear. It didn’t work out that way in many cases.

Portland, Oregon, was one of the cities that saw both peaceful protests and looting and burning…and police with riot gear.

Portland’s protests

As reported in Rolling Stone, Portland’s 2020 protests revealed the massive divide between the public’s expectation of free speech and a right to assemble and the strategies used by its police force against protesters, both peaceful and violent. As daily protests in Portland continued, so did police violence against protesters. At one point, protesters were abducted by military-style police wearing unmarked uniforms and put in unmarked vans. The irony of police officers using violence to stop, arrest, or abduct protesters marching against police violence is hard to miss. Policing reform may be a necessary outcome of the protests.

What does policing reform look like?

Reform might look like simply firing “bad cops,” but that only deals with a symptom of the problem. It might also look like a reimagined concept of “serving and protecting,” where social workers respond to mental-health-related 9-1-1 calls, traffic officers handle traffic violations, fewer police officers carry weapons, community leadership is more integrated with law enforcement, and a smaller group of officers who do carry weapons handle potentially dangerous calls for help and investigations. 

At a minimum, reform should include inclusivity and cultural sensitivity training for police cadets, training and procedures for de-escalating situations, elimination of military-based techniques for subduing and arresting suspects, and the expectation that violent outcomes are an exception, not the rule. A reformed policing system would include strengthened alliances and cooperation with mental health specialists in a community.

Until reform happens

Policing reform is a big task. Oregon’s state police and every local police station must revamp their culture and their focus, from militarized to cooperative with their communities. The challenges may seem overwhelming. Until reform happens, Oregonians may continue to face police brutality.