A police officer was stationed on the Hampton Inn in Portland on June 2. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Portland police say they stationed officers on the rooftops of downtown buildings at last week’s anti-racism protests after learning that armed counter-protesters planned to attend the rally.

The disclosure – which differs from an earlier explanation that police were likely just observing the protests – comes a week after questions were raised, some in a flurry of social media activity, about police officers positioned on top of buildings, seemingly with rifles, scopes and other equipment.

Cmdr. James Sweatt made the disclosure about the armed counterprotesters during a virtual meeting of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee Wednesday night. He said police had received “actionable intelligence” that armed counterprotesters planned to demonstrate near the Black Lives Matter protesters. He said the officers were deployed on buildings to protect the protesters, not to intimidate them.

“They actually did show up. They were actually armed. We intercepted them before they made it there,” Sweatt said of the counterprotesters. “We also discovered other individuals in the crowd that were legally possessing firearms, but their intent was not known. I think that’s an important note to make.”

He declined to provide additional details until police compiled “after-action” reports.

Sweatt made the comments more than an hour after Portland resident Madison Raymond raised the issue. Raymond believes photos of the officers show that they were armed and training their weapons on protesters. A photograph taken by the Press Herald shows an officer looking through something mounted on a tripod, but the equipment can’t be identified conclusively.

On Thursday, Raymond questioned Sweatt’s explanation, saying the officers were on rooftops for several of the protests, including one at Congress Square Park.

“My honest opinion is that they’re using the narrative of outside agitators to justify the concentration of police resources,” Raymond said. “If they had turned away armed counterprotesters earlier, I’m curious as to why they followed the demonstration into the evening hours with what I assume is the same tactical team.”

In an email Thursday night, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said the two officers on the rooftops the night of the June 2 protest were spotters.

“They were armed, but they were not pointing a firearm at anyone,” Grondin said. “What is seen in photos being pointed is a spotting scope on a tripod. It is a completely separate device and not part of the firearm.”

Grondin said she did not know whether the officers were armed with handguns or rifles.

On June 2, Lt. Robert Martin, a police spokesman, said he was not certain how law enforcement resources were deployed during the protest that night, but he said the officer seen in the photograph was most likely an observer positioned to gain a better vantage point of the demonstration.

Neither Sweatt nor Portland Police Chief Frank Clark responded to requests for interviews Thursday about when the counterprotesters were intercepted and additional information about the group, the types of weapons they had and what police believed to be their intent.

The refusal to discuss the incident Thursday comes amid calls for more transparency, accountability and structural reforms of police, in Portland and throughout the country.

The city is not ready to provide additional information until a full review is conducted, Grondin said during an interview earlier in the day. That review will be presented to the City Council on June 22.

“We believe in transparency as well, and for the sake of transparency want to make sure that we share complete and accurate information,” Grondin said.

Protests against police brutality and systemic racism have sprouted up across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died beneath the knee of a white police officer in Minnesota.

Video captured former officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, while two others helped pin Floyd face down on the pavement and another failed to intervene. Floyd repeatedly told officers that he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and the other three were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

Some initial protests in the United States turned violent, with rioting and looting. But the vast majority of the demonstrations have been peaceful, sometimes escalating when police in riot gear advance on and attempt to disperse protesters.

President Trump has labeled protesters “domestic terrorists.” And some of his supporters have armed themselves to prevent rioting and looting of businesses.

Several Trump supporters were armed last Friday when the president visited a manufacturing plant in Guilford. And armed counterprotesters were seen at peaceful protests in Bethel and Sanford in recent days.

In Portland, a local business owner hired armed guards to protect his property – a move he later said he regretted.

Portland police have come under criticism for shooting pepper balls at protesters June 1 and June 2. Some people who lingered after organized protests ended threw water bottles at police and discharged fireworks. Thirty-three people were arrested during those incidents on successive nights. The council will discuss police actions at a June 22 workshop.

City Manager Jon Jennings has called for an internal review of police actions, which involved a variety of law enforcement from nearby towns, as well as Maine State Police and sheriffs. But at least two councilors are calling for an independent, third-party investigation.


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