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Bend leaders divided on police response to homeless camp closure

When Bend officials recently approved a broad policy to clear encampments of unhoused people from city streets, the City Council limited its enforcement to one place, for now.

The testing ground was Emerson Avenue, a stretch of road in a commercial area on Bend’s east side, where officials agreed conditions had become unsafe, due in large part to a spike in calls to law enforcement. Throughout the spring, city officials planned with nonprofit service providers to reopen a nearby shelter. Then, in the early morning hours of June 23, city police barricaded the road. Officers sought charges against five people at the scene, mostly activists who observed and filmed the camp clearing.

Now, key Central Oregon law enforcement officials are starkly divided about those charges, and how Bend police handled the city’s first operation directed at unhoused people under the new policy.

In a report to the Bend City Council last week, city staff commended the police officers who closed Emerson Avenue as “calm and professional.” But, five days earlier, Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel had called the same police actions into question in a blistering memo sent to Chief of Police Mike Krantz and Bend City Manager Eric King. OPB obtained the memo through a public records request.

Hummel declined to prosecute any alleged crimes stemming from the road closure, calling the policing of a group of activists “the type of conduct that should never happen in American law enforcement.”

Hummel’s memo suggests Bend police targeted and surveilled the Central Oregon Peacekeepers, a left-leaning mutual aid group that frequently criticizes city leadership. Members of the group are known to yell, curse, and insult police officers on the job. The group now faces a lawsuit brought by Bend over the cost of a public records request.

The district attorney’s memo also describes the arrest of an unhoused man, “a person [the Bend police department] notes might be mentally ill,” who reportedly asked officers to use a port-a-potty inside a closed area during the Emerson closure. When police refused to let the man through, he made a run for the bathroom, and the officers “chased him, tackled him, and took him into custody,” Hummel wrote.

“Officers went to great pains to document their fear [of the man],” Hummel concluded. “Fear based policing prevailed over common-sense and humane policing.”

In a joint statement to OPB, Chief Krantz and City Manager King disagreed with Hummel’s assessment, “especially his opinions on the Department’s motivations regarding this event,” they wrote.

The city leaders said Hummel was invited to observe or send a representative to the Emerson closure, but did not respond to the invitation.

“We do believe that if the invitation had been accepted, the DA’s office would have seen that Bend police officers conducted themselves professionally, courteously, and within all legal boundaries,” wrote Krantz and King.

“The District Attorney and interested community members can gain a more accurate perspective by listening to the service providers at Emerson on June 23,” they added.

Social service providers have differing views on the day.

At last week’s City Council meeting, Stacey Witte of the nonprofit assistance group REACH told councilors that police who responded to Emerson Avenue had been “kind and respectful.”

“They stepped aside for the social service agencies to come in and do our work prior to the day of the closure,” Witte said.

But another leader among those service providers described limited access to the police operation.

“We weren’t there on scene that day, but we were close by,” said Colleen Thomas, homeless services coordinator at Deschutes County Behavioral Health.

“I could not accurately or competently comment on police conduct the day of [the closure] because I did not interact with them,” Thomas said, describing how she and other service providers were stationed at the shelter down the block that morning. Observers and protestors of the closure were corralled in a designated observational area, she said.

In order to see what unfolded, Thomas said she later watched footage created by the Central Oregon Peacekeepers, the activist group who had members police sought to charge.

Reached by phone this week, Bend City Councilor Megan Perkins said she had not reviewed Hummel’s scathing memo prior to OPB sending her a copy.

“Knowing about this memo really would not have changed the fact that we have absolutely no plans to do any camp closures in the near future,” said Perkins, who serves on the city’s emergency homelessness task force.

She said she wasn’t at the Emerson closure, “but, from what I saw when I was watching feeds and talking to people, a very professional police department [was] being yelled at and heckled during this process.”

Perkins chalked the prosecutor’s memo up to a “grudge situation going on between the DA and the chief of police.”

She called the rift “concerning.”

“It seems like we have two different views of how policing and how law enforcement work,” the councilor said. “When people are not working in partnership with one another, that means you’re not having a fair and equitable city that’s running smoothly and treating everybody equally.”

When word spread that Bend police would clear campers from Emerson Avenue in June, more tents appeared along Colorado Avenue and U.S. Highway 97. Fearing another removal, campers and volunteers worked to clear weeds and debris on July 27, 2021.
Emily Cureton /
When word spread that Bend police would clear campers from Emerson Avenue in June, more tents appeared along Colorado Avenue and U.S. Highway 97. Fearing another removal, campers and volunteers worked to clear weeds and debris on July 27, 2021.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting