City 'listening session' on police airs debate, friction
A city "listening session" on Thursday sparked by friendly-sounding text messages between a Portland police protest liaison officer and a right-wing leader was a success, in that Mayor Ted Wheeler and top police brass heard quite a lot.
Most of what they heard from speakers, however, was mistrust. And the event at times turned chaotic and confrontational.
"Nazi scum! Nazi scum!' several crowd members chanted about a conservative activist who rushed the stage, and several audience members broke into screaming at various times.
More than 200 people filled Maranatha Church in Northeast Portland for the event, which was attended by by Wheeler, Chief Danielle Outlaw, and her top assistants. Wheeler wore casual clothes while the police all wore suits.
On Feb. 14 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 publication of Niiya's texts with Gibson, whose group is called Patriot Prayer, sparked a furor as it followed more than a year of escalating complaints from activists that the Portland police favored Gibson and his allies while cracking down on left-leaning protesters.
Niiya, was quickly removed from the bureau's crowd control unit pending an outside investigation. Two unions representing Portland police defended Niiya as simply doing his job to defuse potential violence, and blasted statements of concern by Wheeler and other city commissioners as a rush to judgement.
On Thusday, Outlaw told the crowd that city leaders had "quickly recognized that there was harm, impact and concern in the community" over the texts," calling the reaction "a symptom of the mistrust that has occurred over years and years and years between the community and the police."
"We're doing this because it's the right thing to do," she said. "I'm not asking for you to say things that make us feel good or make us feel better."
Outlaw needn't have worried.
Screams and confrontations
Left-leaning protesters called repeatedly for Wheeler to give up his oversight of the police bureau and instead assign it to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a frequent critic of police. Others called Outlaw a race traitor for working with police.
One speaker, Shawn Swagerty, cited several national reports that discussed how right-wing extremists had focused on state and federal law enforcement agencies, forging connections or even joining up. He called for investigators to look not just at the bureau's handling of protests but "also the possibility of infiltration of the police bureau by these groups."
Two other speakers whose names were included in Niiya's messages disclosed by the police bureau said they had been targeted for violence and death threats by right-wing extremists.
"Who am I supposed to call when I am being threatened?" said one woman. "I certainly can't call you."
Another, Luis Enrique Marquez, held up his cell phone with what he said were pictures of attacks on his house from right-wing extremists. He told Wheeler, "You want me to die."
Some of the attendees who praised police appeared to be affiliated with Patriot Prayer. Others, however, did not. Some speakers who described themselves as left-leaning or anti-fascist criticized "antifa" tactics as violent or counterproductive.
Others cautioned against jumping to conclusions. Bob Winthrop, a former civilian finance manager for the Portland Police Bureau, praised Niiya as an excellent cop with a non-authoritarian mindset, telling Wheeler, "Please don't criticize a cop before you know all the facts."
Earlier in the week Wheeler told reporters the city has not worked out the details of who will conduct the outside investigation of potential bias in the bureau's handling of protests and when, but said it will be launched as soon as possible.
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