Local prosecutors won't charge certain arrests made in connection with the protests that have occurred daily since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced Tuesday.
The new policy fulfills Schmidt's promises of change, which he made during his campaign for the office in May. Last month, after outgoing incumbent Rod Underhill resigned, Gov. Kate Brown appointed Schmidt to serve the remainder of Underhill's term. He took office Aug. 1.
The new policy takes into account that the "demonstrations are being used to righteously express grief, anger and frustration over that senseless act of violence (in Minneapolis), and the countless other abuses people of color have observed throughout history" due to the criminal justice system, Schmidt said. "It's important to me that the voices of the protesters be heard. And frankly, hearing alone is not enough."
Under the new policy, the District Attorney's office will presumptively decline to prosecute cases forwarded to it by police agencies in which the most serious crime alleged is either a violation of city ordinance or an allegation that does not involve theft, intentional property damage, or either the use or threat of force against someone, such as an assault. The charges involved include second-degree disorderly conduct, harassment, riot, third-degree escape, criminal trespass and interfering with a peace officer.
The office also will highly scrutinize any cases in which people are charged with resisting arrest or assaulting a public safety officer, taking into account the circumstances of the allegations, he said.
Schmidt said he hopes the new policy has the effect of encouraging police to focus their enforcement efforts on people who are actively engaged in destruction or violence.
He said he shared a draft of the new policy with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese on Friday for feedback.
"They have brought to me what their concerns are with the policy and I've listened to that and incorporated some of their feedback," Schmidt said.
About 600 arrests have been made in connection with the protests, including 481 by the Portland Police. Most of those are less-serious misdemeanors.
While it's not unusual for Multnomah prosecutors to dismiss charges against less-serious protest cases, it is unusual for an elected District Attorney to make public policies around whether the office will charge cases in the first place.
Several advisers to Schmidt's transition spoke in support of the new policy, including Ricardo Lujan-Valerio of the Latino Network. He called it a "good step forward" in moving criminal justice policy in a non-punitive direction, but "just a small speck of what is truly needed. We're still working within the confines of the system and we need something way larger than that."
Kayse Jama of the group Unite Oregon said, more important than the policy itself would be its outcome. "We want to again ensure that people have a bit of freedom to assemble and not be prosecuted because of that," he said.
Former Portland Police Assistant Chief Kevin Modica said the history of law enforcement is one of "dominance and oppression" against African Americans, and that the new policy reflected the modernization of law enforcement since slavery. He said police officers should understand the new policy "does not mean you can't do your job. But it does mean after you've done your job, you do not get to hold on to your arrest like a caged animal or like a pet. You must know that you've just done your job and it's just now going through the criminal justice system. And the right decisions will be made."
Not long after the Tuesday press conference, Lovell, who has defended his department's response to the protests since taking over the Portland Police Bureau in June, responded with a public statement praising the thousands of protesters who've engaged in "awesome displays of peaceful assembly. "
But, he added, "When police make arrests, they are based on probable cause that a crime has been committed. Committing a crime is different from demonstrating. Some people use the gatherings as an opportunity to commit crimes. The arrests we make often come after hours of damage to private property, disruption of public transit and traffic on public streets, thefts from small businesses, arson, burglary, attacks on members of the community, and attacks against police officers."
"The Portland Police Bureau is much more interested in collaborating with the community in ways that will lift people up," Lovell said. "We are much more interested in seizing a positive momentum and listening to our community on how we re-envision public safety. Nightly violence disrupts our ability to do that, and the people committing the violence know that. We hear from our community every day how tired they are of the nightly violence. "
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