Common Questions About Recent Protests, Assemblies, and Marches in Salem

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Over the past few weeks, residents have asked us questions and shared concerns about recent protests, public assemblies and marches in Salem. The Salem Police Department will continue to protect public safety while managing such events, including issuing citations where appropriate. Our primary goal is to prevent or intervene in acts of violence or property damage, while respecting individuals' right to free speech and assembly. Here are answers to the most common questions.

Why is this happening in Salem? 

Our city is home to the State Capitol, the seat of government for Oregon.  This makes us a host for many groups and activities in which people exercise their rights of free speech to be heard by those elected to serve, the Legislature, and the Governor. We take that responsibility – and public safety – seriously, regardless of the content of the speech or the ideology of the groups.   For events that occur at the State Capitol, the Oregon State Police has jurisdiction and enforcement responsibility. However, the Salem Police Department and Oregon State Police have a longstanding partnership and assist each other when requested and needed during assemblies, protests and demonstrations.

Are the protests, assemblies or marches issued permits? 

Currently, public assemblies are not permitted, sanctioned, or endorsed by the City.   When the State of Oregon required monitors for large assemblies, Salem stopped issuing permits for special events in the parks or for the use of the streets for parades and marches.  Our intent was to discourage social gatherings, consistent with public health guidance.  When we know of events in advance and have contact information, the City always requests the cooperation of event organizers in complying with public safety and public health guidelines and requirements. 

Can the police prevent or shut down assemblies or marches? 

The police cannot prevent assemblies and marching absent a specific, direct, and actionable threat to public safety, or of violence or property damage. Language has sometimes been offensive, obscene, and personally objectionable, but has not risen to a level to preemptively stop a march.  Freedom of speech is protected.  Language, however offensive, is not grounds for arrest. The right of assembly and to free speech are fundamental rights under the U.S. and Oregon Constitutions.  Absent a threat to public safety, or violence or property damage,  the  police does not have the authority to order a crowd to disperse or arrest individuals who do not comply simply because an event has not been issued a permit.

Other considerations include the size of the protest and the capacity of law enforcement to effectively and safely disperse the crowd. Acting to stop a large protest with limited resources increases the risk of escalation. Law enforcement must, therefore, work to manage each protest as it develops, making decisions based upon the behaviors exhibited by individuals as the protest develops. Again, our primary goal is to prevent or stop violence and property damage while respecting individuals' right to free speech and assembly.

Is it legal to march on sidewalks? 

Community events, such as parades, are required to have a permit. However, walking or gathering on a public sidewalk does not require a permit. Sidewalks are public areas and available for demonstrators, and as noted above, the police cannot prevent an assembly absent a specific threat to public safety. There is no exemption or limitation for demonstrations in public neighborhoods. However, the Salem Police Department has and will continue to encourage marchers to stay on sidewalks or to the side of roadways, and issue citations for traffic violations when appropriate and possible. Decisions to take immediate enforcement action for minor infractions must always be weighed against the totality of the circumstances.

What options does the City have when protests, assemblies or marches start without a permit?

An assembly without a permit is a minor offense. Our priority in responding to demonstrations is to ensure that all people are safe, free from physical assault, or loss or damage to their personal property

We always seek voluntary compliance by attempting to meet with organizers to discuss their plans and actions, regardless of a group's beliefs or cause. Often there is more than one formal or informal organizer and not everyone in a crowd hold the same intentions making enforcement and accountability difficult. Issuing citations for low-level infractions and misdemeanors because some of the participants are walking in the street or the organizer failed to obtain a permit risks escalating the situation, takes officers away from protecting public safety (such as stepping in to prevent or intervene in acts of violence or serious property damage), and may increase the likelihood of even larger future demonstrations.

When faced with a large group of people marching or demonstrating in the street without a permit, the City has limited options.  However, for the sake of public safety, the police can attempt to redirect a group of marchers to to a safer or more manageable area.

What about recent marches and demonstrations at the Governor's residence?

We are deeply concerned about large demonstrations in residential neighborhoods, and the disruption such demonstrations cause.  The City will continue to closely monitor these events, and consistent with our primary interest in preserving public safety, will take appropriate action as is warranted under the circumstances.  Police resources are called in and on standby when we are aware of groups' plans to protest, assemble, or march in Salem.  

In cooperation with the Oregon State Police, Salem Police have closely monitored these recent demonstrations and have had some success in limiting noise and other actions that cause disruptions.  We issue frequent and continual warnings to stay off the streets when marching or demonstrating.  In some cases, we have received cooperation.  In others, we have not.  

Can't the police arrest people carrying weapons? 

Salem Revised Code 95.095 prohibits the possession of a loaded firearm in public within the city limits of Salem, unless the person is licensed to carry a concealed handgun. However, unless officials have probable cause to believe the firearm is loaded with ammunition, the police cannot detain the person and force an inspection. In most situations, without that probable cause, the most police can do is ask if the firearm is loaded. A firearm with a visible magazine or clip by itself does not necessarily mean the weapon is loaded and does not provide enough evidence to force an inspection. Merely carrying a firearm openly does not constitute a violation; it must in fact be loaded.

What should I do if I don't feel safe?

If you feel unsafe at any time or witness a crime, please dial 9-1-1.  You should always call 9-1-1 when life, safety, health, or property is in immediate danger and emergency responders are needed to help safeguard the safety and security.  Please do not assume that others have called or that officers in the area are already aware of what you are seeing.  Police will continue to be on scene and in the vicinity of demonstrations, assemblies and marches and actively monitor.

I have other questions.  Who can I talk to? 

Email [email protected] with your question, preferred time and phone number for response, or call 503-540-2426.  We'll be answering your calls and questions as quickly as we can, with a focus on those residents in the immediate vicinity of upcoming demonstrations or marches.

Chief Trevor Womack
Salem Police Department