'REASONABILITY WINS THE DAY'
When Lake Oswego City and police officials got wind of a planned "March 4 Trump" scheduled for earlier this month and a growing list of counterprotests, they quickly realized that they were dealing with an event of unprecedented scale for the usually quiet Portland suburb.
LOPD Chief Don Johnson figured that more than 40 officers would be needed to staff the dueling political events, which is about the same number of police Lake Oswego normally deploys to cover the entire city over a 24-hour period. If the LOPD officers were all deployed at once, Johnson says, there would be no one left to patrol the rest of the city or to take the next shift — so he knew he would need additional support.
"We quickly found we needed help from law enforcement partners," Johnson says. "And we can't just say, 'We need 20 people.' What if the event goes longer than planned?"
Johnson says he called up his fellow police chiefs throughout the metro area to ask for help. But it wasn't just about putting more police on the streets, he says. He was specifically looking for officers who had prior experience managing large events and crowds so that they could advise the LOPD on strategy.
Roughly a dozen departments responded, sending officers from Tigard, Oregon City, West Linn, Gresham, Canby, Hillsboro, Tualatin, Beaverton and Portland and deputies from the Washington and Clackamas County sheriff's offices to join Lake Oswego's own police officers, fire and City staff.
All of those people needed to be connected to Lake Oswego's LOCOM dispatch center with a standardized system that would allow them to talk to each other throughout the day. But preparations involved more than just communications, Johnson says. Police had to work out as many details as possible in advance — everything from food and water to bathroom breaks.
"It took us all of that week (after the initial announcement of the planned rallies) to start getting ready," Johnson says.
In the days leading up to March 4, Assistant City Manager Megan Phelan and Citizen Information Specialist Bonnie Hirshberger crafted a public outreach strategy, working with Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Keith Dickerson to notify businesses along the march routes about potential traffic and parking impacts.
At the same time, City staff and first responders prepared by setting up the same kind of "incident control system" they routinely practice as part of earthquake simulations and other drills.
"It doesn't matter what the incident or emergency or event is," says LOFD Fire Marshal Gert Zoutendijk. "The Incident Command Center is still run the same way. You still have people from different sections, and they all know what to do individually."
By 7 a.m. on March 4, all of the law enforcement officers and City staff had gathered at the command center, which was located in the City Hall council chamber. Johnson and other leaders briefed officers on their "high-level" responsibilities — protect the marchers' First Amendment rights, maintain public safety and be reasonable in approaching the situation.
"We want you to always be the most reasonable person in the room," Johnson says the officers were told.
Four-person teams were created, each with an assigned area and a call sign. A "mobile response team" — officers armed with heavier defensive and crowd-control gear — was stationed nearby but out of sight, Johnson says, because "we really didn't want to incite anyone."
At around 9:30 a.m., the teams began to leave City Hall and report to their positions. Johnson and other staff remained at a series of workstations in the command center. Phelan and City Attorney David Powell represented the City's government.
"I wanted to make sure the City Council was kept abreast of what was going on, and then the other thing was to work in conjunction with the city attorney," Phelan says. "If it got to a situation where we had to close the park, for example, there's a formal procedure we'd have to follow. It did not, thank goodness."
Johnson, LOPD Captain Dale Jorgensen and LOPD Lt. Scott Thran focused on police tactics, while another officer remained on standby to coordinate the heavy-gear response team if necessary. LOFD Chief Larry Goff led a workstation tasked with assisting with any injuries or medical issues.
Another team tracked official communications and maintained a giant map of the downtown area, with pins representing teams of officers and the locations of potential "hot spots" in the crowds. Zoutendijk, Hirshberger and a county staffer formed a public information team that put out press releases and monitored live video feeds throughout the event.
The teams also divided the day into a series of roughly 45-minute "operational periods." Every 45 minutes, Johnson says, the teams would update their crowd estimates and discuss what they wanted to accomplish in the next period.
"Most of the time, the fire department takes the lead if it's a disaster. But this was the first where the police department really kind of took the lead for incident command, so it was good to see," Zoutendijk says. "It was a role reversal, but it worked just as smoothly as if we'd run it. That's why we practice."
Responding as events occur
Leaders from both the March 4 Trump and an event called "Stand for LOve" had assured officials that they did not intend to directly confront each other, but a third group of mostly masked protesters arrived at George Rogers Park shortly after noon, while the pro-Trump crowd was listening to a series of public speakers.
"My undercover security guy said, 'If you guys want to march, you need to march right now,'" says Carol Leek, the Trump event's lead organizer.
The Trump march abruptly departed, leading to several loud and angry confrontations with protesters, and three people from the masked group were arrested by officers stationed in the park. As the march moved north on State Street, a larger group of mostly masked protesters gathered at the Leonard Street intersection and attempted to block it.
"You could see it coming on the live feeds," Johnson says, "but it was still a scramble to get the right number of cops there."
More than a dozen police officers in cars and on motorcycles rushed to the intersection and positioned themselves between the two crowds. Police sought to reroute the Trump march around the protesters, but ultimately the Trump supporters were asked to follow a route back to George Rogers Park.
"We offered several alternative routes based on our real-time safety assessment," Johnson says. "So basically, we knew we could keep them safe on that route."
Johnson says he and other police appreciated the responsiveness of the crowd; both groups followed instructions when they were told to stay on the sidewalks, and most of the Trump supporters complied with the request to return to the park — at least initially. Many of them circled back, however, and faced off again with protesters at State and Leonard in a standoff that lasted roughly an hour.
"I said, 'We've got to go forward — (the masked protesters) are blocking the sidewalk, not us," Leek says. "But the police made us turn and go back around and told us to disperse, and the Trump supporters were like, 'Uh, no we're not,' and so they went around again."
Both groups had thinned out considerably by around 1:45 p.m., and Johnson says some officers were told they could go home. But at around 2 p.m., a group of remaining Trump supporters were able to get around the masked protesters and continued toward Millennium Plaza Park, where the Stand for LOve participants were gathered.
That led to a final confrontation in which a mix of Stand for LOve and masked protesters tried to block the gates at the base of the steps to the upper park. A 76-year-old West Linn man was knocked over in the confrontation, and officers rushed in to help him and keep the crowds apart.
The LOFD also sent in its ambulance to assist the man. The department normally relies on AMR for medical transports, but in this case, fire officials felt they were better prepared, since they were patched into the communications system and had been watching the day's events unfold. The man was later transferred to an AMR vehicle at the Main Fire Station and taken to a nearby hospital.
"We went in, assessed the patient, brought him to our ambulance and moved him out — in and out in a couple minutes," Zoutendijk says. "Normally we wouldn't do that in daily operations; we'd stay on scene and treat them, get them ready. So the
tactics were definitely a little different."
The confrontation continued for a while in lower Millennium Plaza Park, but Johnson says there was "not much energy" left in either group by that point in the afternoon, so remaining officers simply kept the two sides apart while protesters burned an American flag.
The remainder of both groups dispersed over the next hour.
Johnson, Phelan and Zoutendijk all praised the final outcome of the day's events. The incident on the Millennium Plaza stairs was the only major medical call caused by the marches, there were no further arrests beyond the initial three in George Rogers Park and only one incident of property damage — a scratched car hood — was reported anywhere near the competing rallies.
The heavy-gear incident response team was never called in.
Leek says she thought police did "a great job," although she expressed disappointment at what she said was an unwillingness on the part of officers to prevent protesters from disrupting the Trump march.
Johnson and Zoutendijk say the events served as a good exercise for police, fire and City staff to test out their emergency response plans and "to look in real time at how we handle situations." Johnson also credits the support of other police agencies.
The LOPD is still tallying an official cost for staffing the rallies, Johnson says, but the ultimate lessons from the day are that "there's no such thing as too much preparation" and that "reasonability wins the day."
"I think the cops performed exceptionally," Johnson says. "That's what made the difference out there."