Doug Brown doesn't know who hit him.

On the night of June 12, Brown says, Portland police fired flash-bang grenades directly at him and then beat him with batons.

Brown says he's attended dozens of protests over the past four years, first as a reporter for The Portland Mercury and now as a staffer and legal observer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. He's been beaten by police before, he says, but the recent incidents added a novel twist: He had no way to identify the officers wielding the nightsticks.

A new Portland police policy, first reported by The Oregonian, allows officers to identify themselves with internal city personnel numbers taped to their uniforms or helmets rather than wear name tags. "If I'm going to get hit by the cops, I want to know who hit me," says Brown, who recalls officers wearing only handwritten numbers as ID. "Hiding who you are is a problem."

The ACLU and other watchdogs say that policy provides a layer of anonymity that encourages bad police behavior. City officials take a different view: They say activists have used and will use officers' names to "doxx" them—place their home addresses and other personal information online.

One Portland lawyer had a plan to make it easier to identify officers who commit misconduct during the protests: He tried to use the state's public records law to match the badge numbers on officers' chests with a list of employee names.

That effort ended in a Kafkaesque tangle of circular logic.

On July 17, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office rejected lawyer Alan Kessler's appeal of a public records request that was denied by the city for a list of the unique personnel numbers officers wear on their uniforms and helmets—because Kessler had not provided the officers' names.

Kessler says the secrecy is contrary to the public's interest.

"The Portland Police Bureau is asking for complete trust from the public, with no accountability," Kessler says. "Meanwhile, they are violating our trust by gassing and maiming demonstrators, journalists, and legal observers."

A Portland police officer wears a number taped over his name plate while patrolling protests along North Lombard Street. (Nikolai Ursin)
A Portland police officer wears a number taped over his name plate while patrolling protests along North Lombard Street. (Nikolai Ursin)

In the nearly two months that police and protesters have faced off on Portland streets, numerous incidents (including Brown's beating) have been captured on video and raised questions about police tactics. The lawsuit the ACLU filed on behalf of Brown and other journalists and observers—demanding that cops keep their hands off—now winds its way through federal court.

Meanwhile, Kessler says scrutiny is more difficult since June 6, when the Portland Police Bureau initiated its new policy allowing officers to cover the name tags traditionally visible on their uniforms and instead identify themselves with only a tag or piece of tape with an internal personnel number written on it.

It's not a common practice nationally. Last month, for example, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters that cops who covered their badges during protests "forfeited their right to be Chicago police officers."

On June 17, Kessler filed a request under Oregon's Public Records Law with the city of Portland seeking a list of those internal personnel numbers with the corresponding officers' names and badge numbers.

The basic premise of the public records law, passed in 1973, is that any person has the right to inspect "any writing that contains information relating to the conduct of the public's business."

Over the past five decades, however, lobbyists have riddled the law with exemptions, leaving it looking like a crumbling wedge of Swiss cheese.
Kessler says obtaining officers' identities would serve the public's interest.

"If every act of police violence is anonymous, individual violent officers can carry on with no concern for their professional reputation and no chance of being held accountable by those they harm," Kessler says. "All oversight remains internal to the police department."

The City Attorney's Office rejected Kessler's request July 8, saying he'd failed to comply with the requirements for disclosure laid out in the statute.

Most notably, Oregon Revised Statutes 192.363 requires that in order to obtain identifying personnel numbers, the requestor must provide "the names of the individuals for whom personal information is sought."

Kessler found that a circular argument: In order to get the officer's names, he first had to supply the officers' names.

In its response, the City Attorney's Office noted that it's not necessary to have an officer's name to file a complaint against that officer.

"If Mr. Kessler thought he needed an officer name to report misconduct, the city wants to correct that misunderstanding," senior deputy city attorney Jenifer Johnston wrote. "The city will accept the information available and investigate without an officer name."

Not finding comfort in that reassurance, Kessler on July 9 appealed the city's denial of his request to the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, which serves as referee in local public records disputes.

The Portland Police Association objected. "Officers have been personally threatened, have had the safety of their families threatened, and have even been physically followed by individuals during demonstrations," wrote the union's attorney Anil Karia in a July 16 letter.

"Releasing that list will have very real and negative impacts on officer safety and officer privacy; so much so that those negative impacts override any proffered public interest or 'need to know' that [Kessler] may later assert."

The DA's office gave Kessler the same answer as the city: Unless he provided officers' names, he could not obtain their personnel numbers—and thus their names.

District Attorney Rod Underhill sympathized with Kessler's plight. "Frustration at being asked to do the impossible (or impractical) is understandable," Underhill wrote in his order rejecting Kessler's appeal. But he said that Oregon courts had consistently upheld the law at issue—and suggested state legislators consider changing it. "Given the gravity of the policy concerns presented here, we would welcome judicial or legislative review of the statutory framework that leads to our conclusion today."

Kessler says a recent incident illustrates how the public is harmed by that stance.
On July 16, KATU reporter Dan McCarthy filmed a violent interaction between Portland police officers and a cyclist whom police later identified to KATU as Brandon Thomas. In the video McCarthy shot, an unidentified officer appears to blindside Thomas, knocking him to the ground as he rides his bicycle past Lownsdale Square Park.

The Portland Police Bureau told KATU the matter would be referred to internal affairs.

Kessler says more transparency could stop such incidents from happening in the first place.

"If the officer thought his name would be on TV and his mother would see him throwing that cyclist to the ground, he may have behaved differently," Kessler says. "Because it prevents accountability, anonymity makes it more likely that police will act violently."

Johnston, the senior deputy city attorney, sees it differently.
"We want to be transparent, and we have both a moral and legal obligation to keep our employees safe," Johnston says. "The DA's order represents his best attempt at balancing those goals, and we'll follow his guidance."

"Alan Kessler is one of the most experienced public records lawyers in Oregon," Brown says. "If he can't get information about officers' names, how does the average person have any hope of holding police accountable?"