By Erik Ortiz
The mayor and police chief of Portland, Oregon, are expected to face a barrage of comments from the public Thursday night in the wake of hundreds of newly released text messages and emails exposing an officer’s friendly relationship with the leader of a right-wing group involved in violent street clashes.
Activists and officials who have raised questions about the relationship and whether Portland police are favoring far-right demonstrators say they want to know how far up the department and City Hall people knew of the correspondence and its contents.
“I’m hoping that they will allow the community to speak and share what their fear has been as it relates to how white supremacists are marching out in our community,” said Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who last week said the latest incident confirms “there are members of the Portland police force who work in collusion with right-wing extremists.”
Hardesty believes the community “will show up in full force” on Thursday night, and the Portland Democratic Socialists of America and several other activist groups plan to rally before the city’s “listening session” begins.
The group has called for reform in the Portland Police Bureau and started a petition last week asking Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner, to turn over the department to Hardesty. Hardesty, who said she’s unable to attend Thursday’s meeting, is not personally associated with the petition, but is herself wary about allowing the police to investigate itself.
“Anytime there’s pushback to the Portland police, the knee-jerk response is we’ll do an investigation,” she said. “But we’re still waiting on an investigation from last August, when we had a community member who almost lost their life because police” used a flash bang grenade.
Wheeler called the texts “disturbing” after a report in the Willamette Week on Feb. 14 highlighting the correspondence between Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer, and Portland police Lt. Jeff Niiya, the commander of the department’s rapid response team.
But The Oregonian reported Wednesday that Niiya was communicating with one of Wheeler’s senior policy advisers in order to help City Hall keep tabs on Gibson — calling into question how much the mayor also knew about Niiya’s and Gibson’s relationship.
According to text messages, Niiya and Gibson shared messages in 2017 and 2018 that were joking at times, but also raise concerns that police gave Patriot Prayer and its members preferential treatment, even though they had been involved in bloody brawls with antifascist protesters.
In one text exchange, Niiya told Gibson that officers ignored a warrant on a disorderly conduct charge for one of his members at a previous demonstration, and warned him that “I don’t see a need to arrest on the warrant unless there is a reason.”
In another exchange, Gibson told Niiya he was planning to run for elected office. Niiya responded, “Your [sic] running for office?!! Good for you. County level?”
Wheeler said the texts “appear to cross several boundaries” and “raise questions about whether warrants are being enforced consistently and what information is being shared with individuals who may be subject to arrest.”
Gibson’s Patriot Prayer, based outside Portland in Vancouver, Washington, rejects labels that it is a white nationalist or white supremacist organization, and says it is a spiritual group that defends gun rights and the Constitution. Its rallies, however, have drawn interest from white supremacists and white nationalists, and members have been aligned with other extremist groups who have used racist and Islamophobic language.
Gibson said in a statement that his conversations with Niiya were part of the police bureau’s efforts to de-escalate at public demonstrations. “A police officer on the task force and I exchanged text messages for that purpose,” he added.
Lt. Craig Morgan, of Portland police’s commanding officers union, said Niiya was simply doing his job as part of a larger effort to keep the public safe during the protests that have roiled Portland since the election of President Donald Trump.
“There were many active attempts to reach out to the folks on the left as well,” Morgan told NBC affiliate KGW. “Generally, we weren’t as successful in those reach-out efforts so there does appear to be that perception that we are communicating more with one side than the other, but that’s not due to a lack of effort on our part.”
The Portland police union filed a grievance Tuesday against the city in defense of Niiya, claiming the mayor’s statement’s about the interactions were “derogatory and hostile and damaged his professional work environment.”
Wheeler last week agreed to critics’ calls for an independent investigation to review any “existence of bias in the actions” of police.
A spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Justice told NBC News that the agency has not been asked to take part in an investigation.
The Mayor’s Office, meanwhile, said two community leaders will moderate Thursday night’s “listening session,” which will be attended by Wheeler and Outlaw, and the public can make comments and ask questions.
Hardesty, who this year became the first black woman on the Portland City Council, said she hopes “concrete action” is the result of the event and the larger independent investigation, which she says must include input from national civil rights groups.
“Portland is seen as this progressive place,” she added, “but we have an ongoing problem when we don’t call out these unjust situations.”