Collusion or dialogue? Portland police texts raise questions
How concerned should Portlanders be that local cop Jeff Niiya shared information and exchanged pleasantries with a controversial right-wing leader?
It may depend on your perspective.
On Thursday Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury published articles about questionable text messages their reporters had obtained between Lt. Niiya, a designated police liaison for protests, and Joey Gibson, a right-wing activist who has become a highly polarizing figure in Portland, with protests he organizes often leading to violence.
The story went viral, reaching national and even overseas publications like The Guardian in the United Kingdom, with activists on social media adding new information and video footage of Niiya to the public realm at a phenomenal rate.
Civil rights groups issued statements of concern and Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty issued a prepared statement accusing Niiya of "collaborating" with Patriot Prayer and of providing "aid and support for their hate marches."
Mayor Ted Wheeler issued his own statement, saying "It is imperative for law enforcement to remain objective and professional, and in my opinion, these text messages appear to cross several boundaries."
On Friday Niiya was removed from the police bureau's crowd control unit pending an investigation of the text messages. Later that day Wheeler agreed to a call by civil rights groups, Hardesty and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly to institute police training on white supremacy as well as an independent investigation of whether police handling of protests has been biased. And he announced a public "listening session" from 6 pm to 8 pm Thursday at Maranatha Church, located at 4222 NE 12th Ave. in Portland.
As the Willamette Week article put it, the messages showed Niiya "had a friendly rapport with Gibson, frequently discussing Gibson's plans to demonstrate in Portland and even joking at times."
The Mercury highlighted other texts from Niiya to Gibson "We have a large group of antifa trying to flank us and you. We are stopping them for now," one said. "But not sure how long"
"Heads up just told 4-5 black Bloch [another nickname for antifa] heading your way. One carrying a flag," said another text from Niiya. "We will have officers nearby but you may want to think about moving soon if more come."
The reaction from many Portlanders was understandable. The publication of Niiya's texts, disclosed under Oregon's public records law, came after two years of allegations by activists that the Portland police were favoring Gibson and his allies while cracking down on left-leaning counterprotesters. Some City Commissioners have echoed those concerns.
However, some current and former law enforcement officials hastened to note that the bulk of Niiya's emails, at least, reflect exactly what his job called for him to do: to develop rapport, exchange information and even joke with people across the political spectrum.
Nor, one said, does Jeffrey Minoru Niiya fit what one might consider a typical "white nationalist" profile. He is reportedly half-Japanese and his spouse is Jewish.
Cops trained to engage
Assistant Chief Ryan Lee, who has studied crowd control for the National Institute of Justice, spoke generally without specifically addressing the Niiya investigation. He said that a couple of years ago the Portland bureau began designating formal police liaisons to follow the model of "dialogue policing" used in Sweden, the United Kingdom and much of Europe.
"The goal of a police liaison is really to try and develop a rapport with anybody who identifies essentially as an organizer or a leader regardless of who they are or regardless of the event," he said.
Those "open and honest" dialogues can last a year — before, during and after a protest, Lee said. And he likened it to hostage negotiators' training to defuse a situation.
"The real goal of the police liaison is to gather infomation," he said. "You're just trying to be a communications conduit between police adminsistrators (and) organizers... (so) you can continue to try to deescalate."
"i think that it's a challenge for people to understand that you can have a conversation and be very congenial with somebody ...that you may have gross idelogical diferences with," Lee said. "People are often surprised at the level of casual conversation that goes into building rapport."
Lee's description of the new police "dialogue" tactic largely echoes that offered by the UK-based Anarchist Action Network, which calls it "the new friendly face of order policing."
And Oregonian/Oregonlive reporter Shane Kavanaugh on Friday tweeted out texts Niiya sent in 2017 that were friendly and joking, only with a left-leaning protester.
In the texts where Niiya is warning Gibson of "black bloc" protesters, named a European protest tactic that some have likened to brawling, the context suggests the cop is trying to avoid violent confrontations.
Asked about the perception of favoritism many Portlanders have about the police and right-wing protesters, some city and police insiders often point out that Gibson, who clearly relishes the appearance that he is chummy with police, gets permits for his protests and communicates. Some left-leaning protesters, meanwihle, shun permits and avoid discussion with the police, due to distrust. From the police perspective, these insiders say, officers may try to separate a permitted protest from newcomers whose entry will likely lead to violence — and the resulting perception is police are protecting Gibson and his crew.
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, however, said the context of Niiya's job doesn't fully explain some of his messages — such as one where he indicates to Gibson that he does not intend to arrest one of his colleagues who may have a warrant out for his arrest, "unless there is a reason."
"i don't ever remember hearing anybody on the progressive side being given those kinds of heads-ups and warnings," Handelman said.
Handelman also noted that an email forwarded by Niiya bearing the names of members of protest groups appears to clearly violate a state law that specifically prohibits Oregon law enforcement from tracking political affiliations or activities that are not criminal in nature.
Lt. Craig Morgan of the union that represents Niiya, the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association, said he had not examined that particular email. But he contended Niiya has been the subject of a "rush to judgement." He said Niiya was doing his job as directed, and that he'd have been dumb to try to make an arrest based on an outstanding warrant in the middle of a highly charged protest— one that could well have escalated the violence.
"There'a s time and a place for arrests on warrants, and quite frankly (a highly charged protest) is not that place," Morgan said.
Other critics pointed to a message telling Gibson where his colleagues should stand to avoid being searched for weapons. One suggested Niiya may have actually increased the potential for violence by giving what Gibson perceived as a green light for "mutual combat."
Zakir Khan, of the Oregon Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the ultimate proof of what Niiya's messages mean lies in the tally of arrests by Portland police in recent years.
"I think the fact that they haven't made arrests of the core group (of right-wing protesters) — they've arrested more leftists than far-right guys," Khan said.
"The impact is really bad for both community and small businesses There are normal Portlanders who have called PPB to make arrests (of violent right-wing protesters), and PPB had people there and did nothing."