Public safety rhetoric haunts progressive candidates in Washington County
More than a year after the nation's largest social movement on racial justice and police brutality since the civil rights marches of the 1960s, electoral politics in Oregon, particularly in Portland and its surrounding suburbs, are still under its influence.
As in the rest of the nation, "defund the police" was one of the oft-heard slogans rallying Portland's summer of protests, following the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The protests also drew attention to the number of Black people killed by Portland police over the last two decades.
Portland did ultimately cut its police budget that summer by $15 million — in addition to pandemic-related cuts to meet the budget shortfalls — and disband its Gun Violence Reduction Team. But these measures hardly put a dent in the demands called for by some citizens and activists.
Whether these budget cuts had any direct correlation to local crime rates remains unclear. Still, some local leaders and politicians are using Portland as a cautionary tale for what happens when a community "defunds" its police, as the city sees a rise in violent crime, even outpacing the national trend of escalating homicides.
In an interview with Pamplin Media, Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton characterized the upcoming DA's race as a "referendum on public safety." Running for his second term against a progressive challenger, Barton says Washington County should not repeat the "mistakes" made in Portland and Multnomah County.
"I think we are witnessing the slow collapse of the public safety system in Portland," he told Pamplin Media in an October interview. "And I think that this race is an opportunity for voters in Washington County to make a decision."
Barton paints his challenger, Brian Decker, as "dangerous," accusing him of wanting to abolish the prison system and defund the police.
Decker, an attorney with Metropolitan Public Defender who has openly criticized Barton for blocking reforms on the criminal justice system, was affiliated with the Washington County Justice Initiative, which states it wants to defund police and prosecutors and abolish the prison system on its website.
Documents filed with the secretary of state's office list Decker as the "initial president" of the organization, but Decker told Pamplin Media that he was initially listed as president because he was the one who filed the paperwork to form the nonprofit. Decker served most of his time with WCJI as its treasurer.
He told Oregonian/OregonLive in September that he left the organization to run for office.
Decker told Pamplin Media that despite his involvement with WCJI, he doesn't consider himself an "abolitionist," nor does he support "divesting from anything for its own sake."
"I'm in the leadership of the PTO at my daughter's elementary school, and that doesn't mean that I necessarily agree with everything that goes out in every newsletter from the PTO," he said. "But I do think that it's worthwhile to continue having those sorts of thoughtful conversations that raise these issues and make sure that the community and government are engaged in talking about the issues."
The discourse around public safety and the role policing should take in the community is more intense than it has been in years, said Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore.
"As crime rates for murder seem to have gone up in cities, and especially Portland, it's become something that is resonant with the electorate in ways that we haven't seen it in a while," he said.
'Defund the police' a political bogeyman?
In Washington County, elected officials have not been inclined to "defund the police." Since Floyd's murder, cities like Beaverton, Hillsboro and Tigard have approved larger police department budgets.
The appetite for rethinking public safety wasn't totally lost, however, with the state's most diverse county voting in several progressive candidates last year who called for changes to policing.
Despite winning their races, these candidates' perceived affiliation with "defund the police" rhetoric was used against them by their challengers, even toward those who never publicly uttered the phrase.
Nafisa Fai made history in 2020 when she became the first Black and Muslim member of the Washington County Board of Commissioners. The county commission is technically a nonpartisan board. But as demonstrated by the DA's race, nonpartisan races aren't devoid of politics.
One of Fai's challengers, Jeff Hindley, who was endorsed by the board's two conservative members, slung criticisms reminiscent of the ones Barton has deployed against Decker.
Hindley characterized Fai as "someone that wants to bring the same policies that destroyed Portland to our community." He also criticized her calls for "reimagining public safety," saying they resembled the police budget cuts passed by Portland City Council in summer 2020.
In an OPB article, Fai dismissed those claims, insisting that she had no intention of "defunding the police." She told OPB that Hindley's charges were divisive and a "classic tactic conservatives in Washington County use to fight against change."
Fai did not respond to requests for further comment for this story.
Fai ultimately defeated Hindley in November 2020 by more than 17 percentage points.
"Defund the police" cropped up again during a September Beaverton City Council voter's forum for the runoff election between Ashley Hartmeier-Prigg and Jerome Sibayan.
Hartmeier-Prigg, a former Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District board member, ran a progressive campaign focused on COVID-19 recovery, affordable housing, climate change and social equity. Reforming public safety, much less "defund the police," was not a primary issue on which Hartmeier-Prigg ran — although she has publicly supported the creation of an advisory committee for the Beaverton Police Department.
During the forum, Sibayan asked Hartmeier-Prigg about her ties to "antifa" and the "defund the police" movement. Perplexed, Hartmeier-Prigg responded, "I don't know if that's a joke or not."
Hartmeier-Prigg ended up winning by a small margin, just under 2 percentage points.
"Defund the police" is somewhat of a confusing message to start with. It can carry a different meaning depending on who is talking about it.
On one hand, the phrase has been used by those calling for reform and "better policing," as articulated by Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in June 2020.
The phrase has also been used as a call for investing in budget areas like social services and community development instead of putting all of that money toward the police department.
Others still have used the same slogan to call for fully defunding, and ultimately disbanding, police departments. A push in Minneapolis to abolish that city's troubled police department and replace it with a public safety department made it onto this November's ballot, but voters rejected it.
The layered meaning behind the rallying call makes it harder to unify activists and politicians around an actual policy proposal — and it makes the slogan all the more easy to weaponize, Moore said.
"What's happened is any effort to seriously look at the budgets for police, the effectiveness of those budgets, the effectiveness of the police force, is being targeted as 'defunding the police,'" he said.
There's an added layer of race to examine as well, Moore said, likening much of the negative discourse around Black Lives Matter and public safety happening locally and nationally to former President Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign on "law and order."
In that tumultuous election year — which saw the high-profile assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, protests against the Vietnam War, and rioting during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago — voters responded positively to a presidential candidate who promised to quell the unrest.
President Donald Trump used the same playbook in 2020's election campaign, repeating the "law and order" slogan at rallies and debates, as well as on Twitter. While Nixon prevailed by a slim margin in 1968, Trump lost — although he outperformed his national results in key swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which experienced intense protests for racial justice and policing reform last year. Those two states narrowly voted for President Joe Biden after Trump carried them five years ago.
The use of Portland as an admonition of what happens when the wrong person gets elected is nothing new, Moore said.
There is also a lack of coverage and crime analysis in Portland's surrounding communities by much of the new media, he added.
"It gives people a good political whipping post for people in Washington County to say, 'We don't want to become like Portland,' which is an argument Washington County has been making for about the past hundred years," said Moore.
In the past 30 years, Washington County has gone from favoring Republicans at the local, state and federal level to being a Democratic bastion, with that trend accelerating in recent years. Liberals claimed a majority on the county commission in 2018, multiple city councils have shifted leftward, and Republicans have been virtually shut out of legislative seats in Portland's Westside suburbs over the past few election cycles.
But partisan politics aside, Portland's dominating presence in media reports about rising crime and violence affects the way those in surrounding communities think about their own safety.
District attorneys who focus on cracking down on crime also historically win elections, Moore said.
"It makes the people in Washington County support something that is more conservative than they otherwise would support," he said, "because the DA is really good at saying, 'This could be a murder or a robbery or drug deal in your neighborhood. And you're only safe with me.' And it's very effective."
The tendency toward slogans and shibboleths in political campaigning can also be a barrier to more nuanced conversations about public safety and the structure of policing, said Paul Snell, another political science professor at Pacific University.
Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, Snell proposed creating a civilian police commission in Portland that would operate separately from the mayor's office.
Under Snell's proposal, a nine-person board would oversee police conduct reviews, hiring and even manage disciplinary actions. Similar structures have already been adopted in major cities like Los Angeles and Kansas City.
Snell initially pitched it to Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city commissioners, but the proposal didn't get much traction.
"One thing that I've noticed when proposing this change is it doesn't quite tickle people's fancy, if you will," he said. "People want something a lot more direct. They want concrete reforms, not something that seems a little too academic and abstract. … But it's an ingredient, and the only way that a lot of these reforms are going to happen is if the structures are different — if governance actually changes."
Snell took the idea to Julia Meier, the project director for Portland's charter review commission. It is still possible the proposal, or some form of it, could find its way into an all-new charter that would change Portland's form of government altogether. Then again, it may not.
Snell says he believes the system is capable of change. But he worries that the fervor on display in last year's widespread Black Lives Matter protests has dissipated, and with that has gone the desire for broader change.
"I'm concerned that we're not focused on it, and I've also been concerned with the lack of nuance within our position. When I hear something like 'defund the police,' what I really hear is something like rebuilding the social safety net," Snell said. "But I think we've gotten really stuck in the politics of it, in the sense of the way that 'defund' is framed in a way that really activates some voters and turns off others."
Clarification: This version of the story has been updated with more context on Brian Decker's affiliation with the Washington County Justice Initiative.
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