Recordings From a Police Plane Show Officers Looking for Reasons to Arrest the Leftist Protesters Below

“I know it might be a stretch, but if we could arrest a couple people...”

SOMEBODY'S WATCHING: Police in an airplane circled this right-wing rally in August of 2019. (Wesley Lapointe)

On Aug. 17, 2019, a large group of protesters gathered in downtown Portland to confront the Proud Boys, who were rallying in Tom McCall Waterfront Park. By day’s end, Portland police arrested 13 demonstrators, most of them on the left.

Among those arrested was Hannah Ahern, 28, who spat on the ground in the direction of a group of cops in riot gear—who promptly tackled Ahern to the pavement and cuffed her.

The charges of disorderly conduct against Ahern were later dropped. In 2021, Ahern sued the city, and in the resulting legal back-and-forth her attorneys learned that the Portland Police Bureau’s single-engine Cessna airplane was circling overhead—and recording police radios while it did.

On Feb. 26, her attorneys filed new evidence in U.S. District Court that they had obtained in discovery from the city: 20 minutes of recorded radio conversations from inside the plane.

The recordings, Ahern’s attorney Juan Chavez says, show police arrested protesters without suspecting a crime. “The city had an open and verbalized policy of arresting leftist protesters without probable cause,” Chavez wrote in a Feb. 26 legal filing. “The city was so unabashed about this policy that they announced it over the radio before realizing they were recording and then quickly stopped recording.”

PPB declined to comment.

The key moment in the recording for Ahern’s case comes a little over a minute into the recording, when an officer suggests arresting “a couple people” for disorderly conduct, a crime which encompasses a variety of nuisance behaviors, including obstructing traffic. “I know it might be a stretch,” says one of the cops on the operations desk. Moments later, officers ask if they’re recording—and the tape cuts out for the next seven minutes.

Police will eventually have to explain that in court. But for now, the tapes provide an unusual window into the conversations happening inside the airplanes that incessantly circled over and buzzed Portland neighborhoods during the Trump years as civil unrest played out below.

The Portland Police Bureau's Cessna. (YouTube)

AUGUST 17, 2019

1:06 pm

Airman 1: The fucking radios up here don’t work. They’re fucking awful. Worst things ever.

1:13 pm

Officer on ground: The east bank Proud Boys group has dispersed. It’s down to about 20 waiting for rides and water.

Operations desk: Copy that, just advise them to leave as soon as they can… We’re going to have to do something with the crowd walking south on MLK; it looks like they have the whole street. We’ll have to get some forces up, sound truck.

1:17 pm

Officer on ground: Lincoln One to Ops, are you greenlighting arrests based on individual PC [probable cause] for discon [disorderly conduct]?

Operations: Absolutely, let me know what resources you need. We’ll get more there. Let’s get people out of the street.

1:23 pm

Operations: Ops to One Lincoln One, I know it might be a stretch, but if we could arrest a couple people for discon…

Unknown speaker: Are we recording?

Muffled: Yeah.

[Recording abruptly stops.]

3:03 pm

Airman 2: I don’t know if you can see it, the crowd’s encircling the [Rapid Response Team].

Officer on ground: Central’s mobile field force arriving, 3rd and Oak.

[Hannah Ahern is arrested.]

Officer on ground: I got one in custody, 3rd and Oak.

3:08 pm

Airman 2: I could use a break.

Airman 1: Just tell Josh you need to swap out; he’s probably getting sandwiches. I’ll split mine with you.

Airman 2: I brought another lunch. Double the lunches.

Airman 1: I’ve got a splitting headache. This noise.

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