Salem's police chief Trevor Womack. (Courtesy/Trevor Womack)

Salem’s new police chief publicly condemned racism and white supremacy in a statement posted to Facebook Friday afternoon and explained how the department views its role in responding to public demonstrations ahead of a series of right-wing rallies planned in Salem.

Trevor Womack, who took the helm of the department on Dec. 7, wrote that he values transparency and would immediately begin sharing information with the public about the department’s role.

He said Salem officers are coordinating with other law enforcement agencies about planned protests and aim to protect people’s right to free speech while preventing violence and property destruction.

“During recent protests, speech has occurred that is racist and offensive. We as police officers can do little to stop such offensive language. However, let me be very clear, I do not condone nor support racist speech, and condemn racism in all its ugly forms including white supremacy. There is no place for hatred in our community or within the Salem Police Department,” he wrote.

Womack did not mention specific groups by name, but his announcement comes ahead of several planned protests against Covid restrictions, including a demonstration at the Capitol planned during the Dec. 21 special session.

Salem has become the scene of increasingly violent clashes since the summer when rallies against Covid restrictions and Black Lives Matter demonstrations clashed on downtown streets and at the Oregon State Capitol.

Related coverage: Ten people were assaulted during August protests at the Capitol. Police have yet to arrest

Oregon Women for Trump organized a rally in October with people marching to the governor’s mansion to protest Covid restrictions. After, members of the Proud Boys roamed Bush’s Pasture Park with guns, drawing ire from community members.

Oregon Women for Trump have planned a similar march on New Year’s Day to protest Covid restrictions, according to a Facebook event.

Citizens have commented at Salem City Council meetings fearing violence from armed marches and have written emails to City Manager Steve Powers demanding action.

Womack said Salem police are deeply concerned about large demonstrations in residential neighborhoods and the disruptions they cause. But he noted there is little the city can do to intervene when a large group of people march in the street without a permit.

“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,” he wrote.

He said police issue frequent warnings to demonstrators to stay off the streets during marches, with varying degrees of success.

Womack noted that issuing citations for low-level crimes, like walking in the street, can serve to further inflame a situation and increases the likelihood of violence.

During previous demonstrations, members of some right-wing groups like the Proud Boys have carried weapons, including guns, baseball bats and mace, in Bush’s Pasture Park and on downtown corners.

Womack said his officers can’t arrest someone for carrying a loaded gun unless they have probable cause to believe it’s loaded.

“Generally, a magazine in a firearm alone does not provide enough evidence to force an inspection. Merely openly carrying a firearm does not constitute a violation, it must in fact be loaded,” he wrote.

Womack said if people feel unsafe or witness a crime they should call 9-1-1. His list of answers is available on the city's website.

LINK: Questions about recent protests, marches and assemblies in Salem

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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