Why is Portland’s mayor considering a domestic abuser for police chief?
Earlier this week, the Oregonian newspaper reported that Ted Wheeler, the Mayor of Portland, Oregon had narrowed the field of candidates for Portland police chief to four candidates.
The decision of whom to make the next police chief is of some significance for a department that the Los Angeles Times recently characterized as a force “in disarray.” The last police chief retired abruptly after the Oregonian reportedthat he had shot a friend, apparently by mistake, while hunting in rural Oregon. The chief, who may have been drinking at the time, then falsely suggested to the local sheriff’s office that his friend’s injury was self-inflicted.
Portland’s police department also suffers from what one might reasonably characterize as wildly racially disparate law enforcement. Black people are charged with low-level cocaine offenses at a rate 30 times that of white people. They are also charged more for small broken windows type offenses—for example, black people are charged 15 times more than white people for failing to cross the street at a right angle.
Mayor Wheeler ran on what he described as a “platform of police accountability.” Yet, since becoming mayor he has been, at best, ineffectual. He stood idly by as Portland police violently attacked anti-Trump protestors, even injuring innocent bystanders. He had little substantive to say when a Portland police officer shot and killed a 17-year-old African American boy, Quanice Hayes, who, the officer said, was reaching for his waist band. (Though a fake gun was later found near Hayes’ body, the officer conceded that he did not see a gun before shooting Hayes.) Mayor Wheeler also had little to say as Portland police shot and killed Terrell Johnson, a mentally ill black man who “displayed” a knife, even though it is far from clear that the shooting, whether criminal or not, was necessary.
Similarly damning, Mayor Wheeler had little to say when it was revealed that, although his police have a gang database that targets racial minorities because of their peer groups and social networks, the police had not seen fit to include in the database a well-known white supremacist with a violent criminal history and a pattern of threatening racial minorities. When that white supremacist went on to shout racist hate speech at two young girls of color on a MAX train and then violently murdered two good Samaritans who came to the girls’ defense, Carimah Townes asked in Slate, “Why wasn’t this known white supremacist, who was a clear danger to civilians and law enforcement, included in the database? Because he is white.”
In this increasingly divided city, Mayor Wheeler offers little more than bromides. “[Portland] has a long history of being open and welcoming and inclusive,” he says, which is not accurate. Portland has a well-known history as a KKK stronghold during 1920s and is the largest city in a state that once banned the settlement of black people.
Given all of this, it’s unclear why Mayor Wheeler named the current, temporary chief Mike Marshman, a 26-year veteran of the department, as one of the four finalists for police chief.
Marshman became chief when the prior chief left abruptly under a cloud of scandal. However, he is weighed down by a scandal of his own — one the that the city and its political leadership has never fully confronted. As Marshman himself admits, he once engaged in a domestic violence incident — which is to say, Marshman “grabbed” his teenage stepson “around the neck” and “shoved his [stepson’s] head into the wall.” The incident first came to the attention of Portland police via an anonymous letter, more than a decade ago, when Marshman was a sergeant. Police also received photographs of the incident that revealed “hand and thumbprints around the stepson’s neck and two dents in the wall of the home.” And this was apparently not an isolated incident. Marshman’s ex-wife also described to police an earlier incident in which Marshman hit her son when he was nine years old. Notwithstanding the apparent evidence, Marshman was never prosecuted. He was never even arrested.
Though it gets far less attention than concerns like terrorism or gang violence, domestic violence is a common, harmful and underreported source of physical insecurity in American society. The United States Department of Justice estimates that more than a million incidents of domestic violence occur in America each year, and 21% of all violent crime is domestic in nature. Notwithstanding the fact that many Americans imagine a stranger as the primary source of criminal danger in their lives, when it comes to homicide, American women are more than three times as likely to be killed as part of a domestic violence incident than by someone they do not know. Domestic violence ends in 100,000s of visits to hospital emergency rooms and 100,000 visits to mental health service providers each year. In other words, domestic violence is, relatively speaking, hidden in our culture. It is far more common and far more serious than our abbreviated public dialogue about it would suggest.
Hearing Marshman’s ex-wife, Stacy Cole, describe the events she and her stepson experienced highlights the conspiracy of silence that too often surrounds domestic violence. As the Oregonian reported, Cole said she didn’t report the incident at the time, because she “fear[ed] what would happen to Marshman’s police career.” A picture was placed over the dents to the wall of the home, covering but not repairing the damage. The silence even extended to counselling: though “the three went to counselling… no one talked about the altercation.” Cole later expressed regret, suggesting that she “was writing a letter to her son apologizing for not having done more to protect him.”
The silence extends beyond Marshman’s family to his colleagues. Even once the police department became aware of the allegations, they dithered and never opened a full investigation. When asked about the incident, the prior mayor, Charlie Hales, said he “stands by [Marshman] and appreciates Marshman’s willingness to make his record and this investigation public.” Mayor Wheeler has made no public comment at all about Marshman’s violent past — though naming Marshman a finalist for the permanent job speaks volumes about Wheeler’s lack of concern about the incident.
Similarly, Portland’s other ostensibly progressive elected leaders have not publicly pushed back against hiring a domestic abuser to be the police chief. Portland’s City Council and the all-female Multnomah County Board of Commissioners have been conspicuously silent on the question. Despite the Oregonian’s initial aggressive reporting of the incident, they, as well as Oregon Public Broadcasting and other local news sources, have omitted all reference to the incident from their reporting on the search for a new police chief. In doing so, they too have seemingly concluded that domestic violence is not relevant to Marshman’s job as chief law enforcement officer. (On the other hand, in a profile of one of the finalists for the police chief position, the Oregonian saw fit to mention that one candidate works as a college basketball referee in his spare time.)
I believe in redemption, that people are more than their worst act, and that, over time, people generally ought to be given the chance to move past the mistakes that they have made. At the same time, it’s hard not to notice how harshly and indiscriminately our society sometimes punishes people with less power and influence than Marshman. Furthermore, in Marshman’s case, his apparent crime was covered over by other powerful people. He never was forced to account for the violence he perpetrated.
Regardless of how Mayor Wheeler feels about redemption generally, it is a different sort of question when the perpetrator seeks a position of awesome power and authority like police chief. Should a man who committed a violent act of domestic abuse be given a gun by the city of Portland and empowered to make decisions about when violence justly can be used against others? At minimum, that question should be the subject of some sort of civic dialogue.
So far, in Portland, Mayor Wheeler — and, quite frankly, all the public officials — have shown only cowardice in the face of that question. They have responded with the same fearful silence that so often enables domestic abusers and ensures that domestic abuse remains hidden in the shadows.