Portland City Manager Danielle West presented new recommendations on Monday that the Portland Police will be taking up in response to an April 1 neo-Nazi rally that led to a physical altercation between cops and counter-protestors.
The neo-Nazi group of about 15 to 20 people, the Nationalist Social Club or NSC-131, paraded through Old Port, Monument Square, and outside city hall — where police broke up an altercation and the group dispersed without any charges being filed.
None of the NSC-131 members present at the rally have been publicly identified.
Although video of the altercation has not surfaced public, video of the group demonstrating in Portland circulated broadly on social media.
At the time, then-Interim Chief Heath Gorham released a statement saying that officers were not able to see who or what started the fight.
“Due to officers’ vantage point at the start of the fight, their inability to observe how the fight was initiated or which individuals were directly involved, and individuals’ unwillingness to provide statements describing what had occurred, officers were unable to take any enforcement action related to this incident,” Gorham said in his April 7 letter to the City Council.
Cumberland County District Attorney Jacqueline Sartoris met with Interim Chief Gorham following the incident and provided a list of recommendations for the department to adopt on April 10.
“Our law enforcement personnel acted on April 1st to keep the peace in a very fluid, very difficult, and fast-paced situation. I am grateful for their presence and mindful of how constantly dangerous and tough is their work,” Sartoris said in her statement.
“Critically, I oppose any distraction from the important task we now face: ensuring that we learn from this event such that any future incursions upon our tolerant and peace-loving community by hate groups, including Neo-Nazis, prevent violations of the law including acts of violence, and immediately holds them accountable if they step over that line,” she said.
Sartoris’ recommendations included anticipating and planning for violence, speedily identifying perpetrators of violent acts, studying the formation of a hate crimes unit and hate crimes rapid response capacity, engaging in outreach to vulnerable populations, and appointing one lead prosecutor to be the point of contact for all hate crimes.
City Manager West said Monday that she has been meeting with Interim Chief Robert Martin and former Chief Gorham to discuss the incident and work on a report, but could not disclose details related to the report due to pending charges.
West presented an update to the Council Monday on what recommendations the Portland Police will be implementing:
- Specialized First Amendment training for officers;
- Documenting hate and bias incidents in the same way as crimes, records management to statistically track incidents;
- Implementing an informal risk assessment that takes into account “sensitive speech” in protests even for smaller, spontaneous protests;
- Forming more robust intelligence capacity with increased community outreach;
- Working closely with the District Attorney’s Office to coordinate response.
“We’ve gone through the training, identified issues that we think might be problematic in the future, and tried to put things in place so that we can avoid what happened last time,” Interim Chief Martin said after West’s presentation.
The City Councilors then had an opportunity to respond to the new police guidance.
Councilor Mark Dion wanted to draw a clear distinction between crimes and hate and bias incidents, the former being criminal and the latter being civil.
“Not every one of these incidents, no matter how despicable, qualifies for criminal prosecution, but it does not make them immune from civil accountability,” Dion said.
“I think we have a roadmap in front of us now that’s showing that we’re going to do everything we can to make sure this won’t happen again in our community,” Councilor Andrew Zarro said.
Councilor Regina Phillips was unsatisfied with the new guidance and said that she needed to see a more specific plan on how the police would address bias.
“For me, I don’t see this as a First Amendment situation. I know that people have the First Amendment right, they can say whatever they want and we have to abide by that, we have to respect that. Totally understand that,” Phillips said. “For me, I saw it a little bit differently.”
“Although I appreciate the recommendations that the police department and the City Manager made [and] all of this, I need more,” she said. “I just need more. I actually need some kind of a plan that says that we’re going to specifically address bias in the police department.”
City Manager West responded to Phillips’ concerns by saying that the new Interim Police Chief is “very focused on this” and that she spoke with him during the interview process about the recommendations of the Racial Equity Steering Committee.
“My thoughts on this have been pretty open, in terms of how significantly challenging this whole thing is, and how people are feeling really unsafe,” Councilor Victoria Pelletier said. “I still hear it, I still hear that people feel really unsafe and scared about this incident.”
Pelletier said that Council needs to have its own plan to ensure that “everybody is feeling like they can walk around freely in Portland and not wonder if they’re going to be terrorized by a Nazi group.”