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Portland Civil Rights Activists Want A Mayor Who Can Stand Up To Police

Mayor Ted Wheeler’s popularity has declined after a summer of protests against police violence in the Oregon city.

A street scene in Portland on August 26.(Photo by Mac Smiff)

Who is willing to take on the Portland Police Bureau and its union? As Portland, Oregon, chooses its next mayor, that’s a key question on the minds of civil rights activists.

For civil rights attorney Juan Chavez, the answer is clear: “Not Wheeler,” he said. Mayor Ted Wheeler is up for re-election this year and will be facing Sarah Iannarone on the November ballot.

Since George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police officers in May, Portland community members have protested daily. In response, police officers have brutalized, harassed, and tear-gassed protesters, legal observers, and journalists. In June, Chavez, who directs the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Civil Rights Project, and other attorneys sued the city over the police department’s deployment of tear gas at demonstrations. 

The next mayor, local advocates say, must do what Wheeler, who also serves as police commissioner, has not: hold the police accountable. 

Wheeler and Iannarone were the top two vote-getters in the May primary. Because neither received 50 percent plus one vote, they’ll be in a runoff in November. Wheeler received about 49 percent of the vote; Iannarone received about half that. 

There is also a write-in campaign for Teressa Raiford, who finished third in the primary. Raiford is the founder and executive director of Don’t Shoot Portland. Raiford told The Appeal she supports the write-in campaign and has endorsed neither Iannarone nor Wheeler. This summer, her organization sued the city and the Department of Homeland Security for violating the civil rights of protesters. 

“With the uprising right now, these aren’t results of things that happened when George Floyd died,” said Raiford. “Portland is known for, really, its inhumane practices against people of color.”

Wheeler’s first place finish in the primary, which was held on May 19, occurred shortly before the protests began. A recent poll showed Iannarone leading Wheeler, and another found a majority of respondents had an unfavorable view of the current mayor. 

“As the mayor and the police commissioner, you should have control of your police department,” said Mac Smiff, a Portland-based protest journalist and activist. “The mayor can’t just keep on passing the buck. He’s the mayor.” 

Smiff said he has attended the protests since June and has witnessed police officers beat, tackle, and shoot rubber bullets at protesters. 

“It’s a lot,” said Smiff. “It’s a whole lot. There’s just really no shortage of violence when the police decide to be violent.”

Since June, multiple lawsuits have been filed against the city, detailing human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by Portland police officers. In an interview with The Appeal, Wheeler said he has not terminated any officers in connection with their conduct during the demonstrations, but that investigations are being conducted. 

According to the officers’ contract with the city, those who are fired can appeal and take their case to arbitration, where they typically prevail, according to civil rights advocates. The contract requires that “the costs by the arbitrator, court reporter (if any), and the hearing room shall be borne by the losing party.” Wheeler said he has fired officers during his tenure, and many did not appeal the decision. 

“I can fire them all day long, but it won’t stick because my termination is actually, it’s not consistent with the disciplinary process that is in the collective bargaining contract,” said Wheeler. “In virtually every case that’s been brought to an arbitrator, the arbitrator has ruled in favor of the officer and in opposition to the mayor and the police chief. That is a consistent, long-term issue.”

The current labor agreement went into effect in November 2016, before Wheeler took office in 2017. The contract was set to expire in June, but the City Council voted to extend it for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The contract includes the “Portland Police Officers’ Bill of Rights,” which guarantees extensive protections to officers accused of wrongdoing. In another section, the agreement reads: “If the City has reason to reprimand or discipline an officer, it shall be done in a manner that is least likely to embarrass the officer before other officers or the public.” 

Chavez says it’s incumbent upon the mayor’s office to hold officers accountable and to negotiate a contract that does as well. 

“People need to be fired,” he said. “People need to be off this job right now. I can’t think of a more immediate fix than that.” 

The police in Portland have a long history of abusing the city’s residents. In 2012, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice found that the department “engages in a pattern or practice of unnecessary or unreasonable force during interactions with people who have or are perceived to have mental illness,” according to a letter from the DOJ to then-mayor Sam Adams. As a result of its investigation, the DOJ and city entered into a settlement agreement to implement a number of reforms. 

Between April 1 to June 30 of this year, 21 percent of use-of-force incidents involved a person experiencing a mental health crisis, according to a report prepared by the Office of the Inspector General and released in August. The report did not include “crowd control or deadly force events.” In 2017, more than half of all arrests by the Portland Police Bureau were of people experiencing homelessness, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive. 

“I don’t think there’s any possible way to actually change the culture of this institution,” said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. Singh has endorsed Iannarone for mayor. 

“We just have to disband it,” he continued. “Start with new hires.”

Amid a national movement to defund the police, Wheeler said he and the council have supported a number of reforms. This summer, they reduced the police budget and allocated $4.8 million to the Portland Street Response program, which would dispatch a medic and crisis worker, not police, to respond to emergency calls concerning people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises. The mayor also voted in favor of a ballot initiative that, if approved by Portland voters, would create a new oversight agency for the police. 

In September, Wheeler banned the use of CS, a type of tear gas, for “crowd control.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, CS is “used in military settings to test the speed and ability of military personnel to use their gas masks.” The Portland police department’s frequent deployment of tear gas earned Wheeler the nickname “Tear Gas Teddy.” According to an analysis conducted by a master’s student at Portland State University, local law enforcement deployed tear gas more than 100 times from the end of May to the end of June.

“We are making change, and I know there are a lot of people who think we should be moving even more quickly than we already are,” Wheeler told The Appeal. “We don’t want to just do this quickly. We want to do this right.”

Iannarone’s public safety plan details a number of initiatives aimed at investing in services for Portland residents, especially community members who are unhoused. 

“I’m really going to try to hold on to that public safety budget and redirect it from militarized policing,” Iannarone told The Appeal, “to community-led, trauma-informed, culturally sensitive programs that keep Portlanders safe, and I really want to use the public health lens to help us do that.” 

She proposes erecting supervised injection sites, and Community Health & Safety (CHS) Hubs, which would provide temporary shelter beds and hygiene supplies. Last week, Wheeler announced more shelter beds for the city’s residents, although he has continued to support sweeps of homeless encampments. Safe injection sites, Wheeler told The Appeal, are “something I would certainly consider.” 

“I would want to know more,” he said. “I’m certainly open-minded about safe injection sites.” 

Iannarone’s plan, according to her website, also calls for the police to stop “arresting or citing houseless people for offenses related to their poverty and houselessness.” 

“A houseless person who is washing up, drinking from a water fountain, or sleeping outside shouldn’t be arrested for it—they lack any other options, which is a failing of our City, not the individuals,” Iannarone said in an email to The Appeal. “We should use the same weight of resources spent on policing and sweeps to help that person get out of poverty and off the street, indoors.”

If elected, Iannarone has said she would appoint City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to the position of police commissioner. Hardesty has frequently condemned the police department’s violence. 

“Our police have gone rogue in Portland,” Iannarone told The Appeal. “How is it that the mayor allows this to happen?”