Columbia County DA Jeff Auxier opens up on police, protests and prosecution
It's just more than 30 miles from the Columbia County Courthouse to the Multnomah County Courthouse.
But these days, it seems like the distance ought to be measured in light years.
While Columbia County continues its efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and return to life as usual, things in downtown Portland at the Multnomah County Courthouse are different. Vastly different.
While most of Portland continues life as normal — at least as normal as can be during the pandemic — nighttime activities around the courthouse are anything but normal. On Saturday, Sept. 5, downtown Portland (as well as other areas) marked a 100th consecutive night of protests and violence that began following the death in police custody of George Floyd.
As America struggles to deal with the aftermath of Floyd's death, charges of systemic racism and the violence that has often accompanied protests, the Spotlight reached out to Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier for his unique opinions related to law enforcement. Auxier, 40 and a resident of Columbia County since 2013, has served as Columbia County district attorney for three years, and worked for almost 10 years before that as a deputy district attorney in Multnomah County. Auxier grew up near Sherwood, graduated from Lewis & Clark College (where he earned his undergraduate degrees in political science and Hispanic studies), got his law degree from Willamette University, then served 2 1/2 years as a deputy district attorney in Marion County before beginning his tenure in Portland.
As protests have carried on in downtown Portland (and more recently, in some outlying areas and at Portland Police Bureau's Northeast and North precincts), there have been endless discussions, new stories and opinion pieces — both locally and nationally — about law enforcement's response and role.
"We live in a society where people have constitutional rights to be difficult," Auxier said. "Clearly, there's violence at times. There's property damage during these protests. (But) we live in a society where people have the right to speak freely and we need to protect that."
While some people believe that police ought to stay out of the way during protests, and others advocate greater use of manpower and force to stop the violence, looting and arson that sometimes accompany protests, Auxier said that those simple answers — from either side of the political spectrum — aren't really answers at all.
"I think people who think that the police should just back away and let the protesters protest are not being realistic," he said. "And people that think we should just send in the military and sweep them all away are not being realistic either. It is just an extremely difficult situation with no clear answers as to how to fix it."
While he has worked as a prosecutor for the entirety of his career — "I went to law school to be a prosecutor and that's never really veered off course," he said — Auxier expressed his support for the host of constitutional protections afforded to those arrested during protests.
Prosecuting violent protesters
At the same time, Auxier has no interest in protecting lawbreakers — those who destroy property, loot, set fires or attack police. During his time in the Multnomah County DA's office, he began his work in misdemeanors, then progressed to the gang unit, moved on to prosecute adult sexual assaults, and later, shifted back to the gang unit.
"When I was in Multnomah County, … I spent most of my time in gangs and in the sexual assault unit, but I actually went out of my way to take cases where I was prosecuting people who assaulted the police and rioted during protests," Auxier said. "I took a lot of pride in that."
And, he adds, he was never hindered in his attempts to prosecute cases against people who rioted or attacked police.
"There was a perception that, perhaps being a liberal county, we wouldn't side with law enforcement in these cases, but I never found that to be true," Auxier said. "In fact, I found these cases rather relatively easy to win because there's a small number of people who use these protests as an opportunity to be violent. And you can look to jurors and say, 'No matter what your side is, no matter what your position is on this issue, these people don't help the cause.' It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative — juries understand that."
While municipalities across the country have experimented with "no bail" policies — a rule that allows people arrested for minor offenses to be quickly released without paying any bail — Auxier is in favor of a more nuanced position.
While he sees the myriad problems associated with the no bail movement — instances of suspects committing crimes, getting arrested and released, and then committing additional crimes the same day — Auxier also believes that bail reform is needed.
"Right now, there's this there's a kind of nationwide bail reform movement that's motivated by the principle that what you have — whether you're rich or not — shouldn't be the basis for deciding who gets released as they wait for their trial date," he said. "The presumption should be that you stay out of custody as you wait for your trial.
"But the bail reform movement says that the only things that a judge should consider when deciding who to release before their trial should be 'Are they a public safety risk? And are they going to show up to court voluntarily?' If they're going to do that, why should they be in custody just because they can't post $500, right? There's some truth to that."
At the same time, Auxier noted cases where suspects — "scary, domestic violence offenders —who threatened to murder their wife or significant other, or made realistic threats, were able to post the $50,000 it took to get out. In Multnomah County, Auxier recalled instances when Saudi citizens committed murders or had been involved in fatal crashes only to be bailed out by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and flown home.
"I don't want rich people getting out if they're dangerous. That's wrong," Auxier said. "By the same token, some of these bail reformers in certain states have gotten it wrong as well and they're releasing too many people. We're sorting out how to do this, but the idea of getting rid of cash bail doesn't offend me, necessarily. We've just got to do it in a way that protects the public."
At the heart of everything — the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and the protests and riots that followed — is the question of systemic racism. Are there American systems or institutions remaining in place that explicitly disfavor one race versus another? Is any disproportionate result — in income, wealth, employment, incarceration, murder rate or any number of other measurable categories — evidence of systemic racism?
"It definitely manifests itself in ways that I think are hard (to define) or intangible, but that I believe exist," Auxier said, noting that the aftereffects of slavery, Jim Crow laws and enduring racism all play roles in disproportionate negative results for some minority groups.
Regarding the police, however, Auxier knows what he has seen throughout his career — the men and women of Oregon's police forces trying to do their best at their jobs and for communities of color.
"Are individual police officers biased against the African American community? I really don't think so. Not consciously," he said. "But I think we all need to look at the possibility that we have unconscious biases against marginalized communities because that's just human nature. We need to address that and really confront that.
"But one thing that I'll defend to the bitter end is law enforcement. When it comes to my beliefs that the vast majority want to do the right thing for the right reason and help people — and that includes helping communities of color — I just saw that time and time again."
Something's wrong. Something's broken.
Despite that, Auxier knows that there are big problems in our state and in our country that require continued attention.
"You know something's wrong, right? Something's broken," he said. "Black communities, just the evidence (says they) feel unsafe. That and they don't trust the police the way that I wish they could."
Auxier finished by sharing a story about a conversation he had last week with an African American friend who works in law enforcement.
"I had a very long, personal, detailed conversation with a friend who's an African American police sergeant from Portland, about just how hard this time is for him," Auxier said. "You know, being on the front lines of these protests and being called racist — it's hurting him emotionally. And I just can't imagine what it's like to put up with that sort of anger when all you want to do is do the right thing and help your community."
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