At the heart of the latest Portland police dispute? Meet Ryan Lee
Behind renewed controversy over whether Portland police help white supremacists at protests is the brainchild of a Chinese-American whistleblower cop.
Assistant Chief Ryan Lee has for years been the leading architect of the Portland Police Bureau's philosophy of crowd control. He's researched and pursued changes to how Portland maintains order during protests — even successfully pushing the agency to abandon the term "crowd control" for the less authoritarian "crowd management."
Now, however, the 46-year-old manager's strategies are under intense scrutiny. Earlier this month, the bureau disclosed text messages between Lee's chosen successor to lead protest responses, Lt. Jeff Niiya, and Joey Gibson, a right-wing organizer with the group Patriot Prayer. They show friendly sounding information-sharing, some of it attacked as questionable.
Police critics called the texts confirmation of their longtime suspicions. Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty accused the police of "collaborating" with Patriot Prayer and providing "aid and support for their hate marches."
One left-wing protest group, Rose City Antifa, said the texts "only served to prove what has been known to many for some time," that the city of Portland has worked "in collusion with far right groups."
Now an outside review will scrutinize what amounts to Lee's handiwork — the bureau's crowd control efforts and tactics — for bias, while an internal disciplinary investigation looks at Niiya, the officer elevated to fill Lee's job when Lee was promoted less than a year ago.
The review will try to unravel a question that affects all Portlanders: Have Portland police practices inadvertently encouraged right-wing protesters and the high-profile protest street brawls that, in 2017 and 2018, sapped police resources and made headlines nationwide?
At a recent listening session at Maranatha Church in Northeast Portland, while numerous speakers blasted the police and especially the rapid response team that has been Lee's focus, the assistant chief watched intently.
It wasn't the first time Lee's been under pressure.
Blowing the whistle
One night in January 2002, then a probationary trainee police officer, Lee responded to a noise complaint at a downtown nightclub. He said hello to two departing off-duty cops on his way inside.
Upon finishing his work inside, he came out — only to realize that while he'd been in the club, the two off-duty cops had been savagely beating a man outside it.
The man's offense? He'd pushed one of the off-duty cops inside the club in response to a comment about his suspenders, reports later showed. The cops followed him outside to exact a gruesome revenge.
When Lee, a Coast Guard veteran from California, heard about the assault from eyewitnesses, he tracked down the man and took photos of his face: one eye swelled shut, his nose broken. Lee ordered the two off-duty cops to sit in the back of his squad car, like any other suspects.
Then, a lieutenant on duty ordered that no reports be written about what Ryan had seen. Later a sergeant, fearing retribution, sent an anonymous letter detailing the cover-up. At first, it remained a secret.
Local prosecutors who read the letter feared the police union would block the investigation. They lured Lee to their offices under a pretext, so the union would not be informed. There, two detectives ambushed Lee and grilled him about the beating. He told them everything.
It was a bad time in the Portland police bureau to be a whistleblower. A couple of years before, in response to another scandal, a Portland cop was reported as saying he had a "bullet" for every "rat snitch" police whistleblower. Portland cops used the terms "no cover" or "slow cover" for a life-threatening practice of not responding when an unpopular coworker called for backup.
For Lee, the grumbling and potential threats became so intense that he was transferred to another precinct for his own safety.
"It was a lot of pressure," recalled Lee, adding, "I had a young child, and I didn't need my wife stressing while I was at work."
Six cops were disciplined following a lengthy investigation of the nightclub beating and attempted coverup, as was later detailed in The Oregonian and other media outlets. The off-duty cops, Craig Hampton and Grant Bailey, became the first Oregon cops ever charged with a Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentence.
At that point, to defuse internal tensions, the Chief's office did something unprecedented. All officers had to watch a roll call video narrated by the detective who investigated the case. The video "walked through the entire incident start to finish, which eventually changed the way the incident was perceived Bureau-wide, said Bob Gorgone, a retired police captain.
"Ryan stood up to the groupthink of the time and did the right thing," Gorgone added. "He took the heat and internal harassment that resulted from initial lack of information to the rank and file."
Lee said he was raised to believe in service and honor by his Chinese-American father and Caucasian mother, who taught adaptive physical education to children with special needs.
She was from Alabama, and her family's lore of the Civil War had been passed down that her county had sought to "secede from the confederacy because they didn't believe in slavery," Lee recalled, calling it "one of the big moments of pride in the family history ... I grew up hearing values of human equality ... You have to do what's right."
When cops riot
Lee had joined the bureau in September 2000, just four months after what became a momentous episode in the bureau's history: A May Day march sparked what some called a police riot — one that resulted in widespread injuries to protesters who'd done nothing wrong. The city's review of the incident faulted the police.
Retired Captain Larry Graham remembers coverage of a protest from those times, news choppers filming from above while what looked like "wilding" — a term for unprovoked attacks on strangers — went on below.
"Cops were running around with their batons out, basically chasing people. It looked like a damn wilding. It was embarrassing," he said. "It was before all the crowd control (tactics were) put together. It was just a bunch of people chasing a bunch of other people, with sticks."
Meanwhile, organized "black bloc" tactics gained popularity in Portland, referring to protesters who bring makeshift armor and weapons to rallies to battle police. In 2002, group of masked teenagers rushed a line of police motorcycles, one bashing a cop in the head with a metal rod.
Lee, with a few years under his belt, joined the crowd control unit, and he and several of his colleagues started researching tactical improvements on their own.
He became a sergeant, then a lieutenant — one who, according to current and former coworkers, developed a reputation for a willingness to make decisions when his higher-ups would not.
His fans within the bureau liked that he was blunt and unafraid, but his critics said he was abrasive and a stickler.
Graham, the retired capatain, said Lee's caring side and community involvement showed as he climbed the ranks, investing time helping kids learn self-defense and also teaching at Portland State University. "He was always putting in more and more and more hours."
Chief Danielle Outlaw in April 2018 took the unusual step of jumping Lee two ranks to be part of her command team, which Gorgone considers an unusual move to reward competency over seniority.
"It's been obvious to me that he doesn't make his decisions based on politics or what's popular," said Gorgone. "He does it based on whether it's the right thing to do."
Lee's observation is more personal: "I am the first Chinese-American to ever serve in the chief's office, despite the fact that the city of Portland once had the largest Chinese population in the United States."
Lee became known for his research and expertise on crowd control, and was invited to speak at national conferences.
The National institute of Justice named Lee to a special advisory committee on protest management, and then paid for him and four other cops to travel around Europe to gather information on advanced police crowd control tactics there.
Lee successfully pushed the bureau to abandon the term "crowd control," rewriting directives to focus on "crowd management" — working with the public rather than controlling them.
Key to the more refined model was a protest liaison who builds rapport with group leaders, persuading them to self-police and expel protesters who are more interested in violence than expressing their First Amendment rights.
In 2017, when the public TV show "PBS NewsHour" needed an expert to interview in the wake of a violent far-right rally in Charlottesville, they contacted Lee, who said politics should play no role.
"While I may personally find the content of somebody's speech personally reprehensible, my role as the police officer is to facilitate that lawful and peaceful expression of somebody's First Amendment right," he told PBS. "To try and give them a platform for it while at the same time weighing those governmental interests to keep the peace, to maintain law and order and to meet the public's expectations of what they want from their police force."
That strategy — and the perception that one side gets preferential treatment — is at the heart of the present controversy.
Gibson, who himself is half Japanese, denies that his Patriot Prayer group is part of any white supremacist or extremist movement, though he says hateful people show up on both sides.
What's not in dispute is that over the past two years, Gibson is widely viewed as having figured out how to exploit Portland's rules to make sure most of the arrests made are left-wing counter-protesters, not his followers.
The HBO show "Vice" devoted part of an episode to how Gibson has become a master of provoking backlash while his members avoid arrest — something the organizer acknowledged to the Portland Tribune recently.
"I'm willing to take a beating to get it on camera so the country can see what's going on with them," Gibson said of his critics, often called "antifa" or "antifascist."
Meanwhile, left-leaning groups have generally not been as eager as Gibson to buddy up to cops — and some of them lack the hierarchical structures that produce the sort of leaders that Portland police are trained to cultivate relationships with, to defuse violence.
One "antifa" member who shared information with Portland police in 2017 to try to reduce violence was ostracized, setting an example to others for what happens to those who talk to cops.
For cops, these dynamics— along with Gibson's effort to get permits for his protests — help explain why they get accused of favoritism by Gibson's critics.
Still, Zakir Khan of the Oregon Council on American-Islamic Relations points to the lopsided tally of arrests made by Portland cops of left-leaning protesters versus their counterparts as evidence that something is wrong.
Similarly, Dan Handelman of the groups Peace and Justice Works and Portland Copwatch thinks the liaison tactics pushed by Lee are fraught with issues. He thinks Niiya — Lee's officer whose texts have made headlines — should have maintained more of a professional distance from Gibson. The chatty texts, Handelman contended, sent the wrong message.
Handelman, who has monitored and participated in protests for decades, added he hasn't seen any improvement in local cops' crowd control tactics over the years.
As for how Niiya, who is Japanese-American, Lee, who is Chinese-American, and Outlaw, an African-American, could be jointly facilitating white supremacists at protests, Handelman said it's less about personal intent than it is an institutional problem.
Activists often point to a draft city of Portland report revealed by Willamette Week showing that one lieutenant felt Patriot Prayer protesters were "much more mainstream" than the other side — suggesting bias.
So was that lieutenant Ryan Lee?
Lee told the Portland Tribune that is something he can't comment on given the reviews under way.
But does he agree with the sentiment the anonymous lieutenant expressed?
"No," Lee said.
How about the criticism that Portland police on at least one occasion turned their back on Gibson's group and instead faced counter-protesters, creating the appearance of bias?
Lee said he hasn't seen that occur, but contends it's easy for either side to cherrypick photos or incidents that support their side.
Has he looked into why police detectives seemingly are not as good at getting charges filed against right-wing protesters who've been caught on video engaging in violence, as compared to left-leaning ones?
Lee said detectives are under a different assistant chief, but generally speaking that is a conversation he would have.
In light of the fact that Gibson has seemingly been more successful than his left-leaning critics in taking advantage of the approach used by Lee and the police bureau to further Patriot Prayer's cause, does the bureau have a responsibility to change its tactics?
Lee, who records show has been an unaffiliated voter since moving here nearly 20 years ago, is skeptical and says it would be inappropriate to keep score based on politics.
There are people on both sides who seek to provoke a reaction, Lee said. But the police must remain apolitical and focus on unlawful behavior rather than speech that, while hateful, is not a crime. To do otherwise, Lee said, "is a slippery slope" for democracy.
Now he waits to see if the city's outside review agrees.
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