Millie was 10 years old when a swarm of heavily armed cops burst through her family’s front door in the middle of the night. Her father, who had opened the door at 3 am to officers who suspected there had been a burglary at their SW Portland home, was immediately arrested. Officers corralled Millie, her mother, and five younger siblings in the kitchen, raided the house for electronics, and then drove them to a facility where FBI agents interrogated each child about a recent family trip to Yemen.
“I was terrified,” said Millie, who asked that the Mercury only use her first name. “I didn’t know what what going on.”
She wouldn’t see her father, a prominent leader in Portland’s Muslim community, for nearly two years. According to Millie’s recollection—supported by federal court documents—the inconsistent felony charges against him were eventually found to be unsubstantiated. In 2011, Millie’s father’s case was dismissed.
But the trauma endured from the experience never went away.
After he father’s arrest, Millie dropped out of school to take care of her siblings as her mother struggled with severe PTSD from the night of the arrest. Their household was shunned by their close-knit Muslim community, mostly out of fear that any interaction with the family would put them on the FBI’s radar. Even now, nearly a decade since the arrest, Millie’s parents still live in general seclusion.
“The intended goal of knocking him down,” Millie says, “was successful.”
Millie, who now volunteers with immigrant rights group Unite Oregon, later learned that the investigation was led by a FBI team called the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), a regional group made up of law enforcement representatives from multiple jurisdictions who work together with the goal of investigating suspected terrorist activity.
Portland’s JTTF includes more than a dozen members, including agents and officers from the FBI, Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection, Oregon State Police, Port of Portland, and Clackamas and Washington Counties, as well as two officers with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
Portland City Council is scheduled to vote Wednesday afternoon on whether the PPB should leave the JTTF—a request made by the council’s newest member, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who campaigned on the promise of removing Portland police from the JTTF.
This is the third time the city has considered leaving or no longer participating in the JTTF since Portland initially joined the controversial task force in 1997.
“On the campaign trail, what I heard over and over again from people was their sense of insecurity just walking around Portland,” Hardesty said at a January community meeting about the task force. “I feel very uneasy having city employees that are working for a federal government that has shown that it’s targeted immigrants and refugees.”
“I feel very uneasy having city employees that are working for a federal government that has shown that it’s targeted immigrants and refugees.”
Pulling Portland police from the task force will not stop the JTTF from staging the kind of targeted raids that Millie’s family experienced—but it will guarantee that no Portland cops are involved.
According to civil rights advocates, such a move help Portland communities that have been targeted by the FBI regain their trust in the PPB. Meanwhile, law enforcement officials argue that withdrawing from the organization could slow down the FBI’s response to local terrorism threats.
City commissioners remain divided on the vote. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish are both strong advocates for remaining in the task force, while Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Hardesty are expected to vote against the JTTF partnership. That leaves Commissioner Chloe Eudaly—who hasn’t expressed her stance—as the swing vote in this afternoon’s meeting.
“The big issue I’m having with this conversation… is that there’s no acknowledgment of the many ways in which other units or task forces have violated individuals’ civil rights,” Eudaly said at a Tuesday morning work session at City Hall, where civil rights advocates and representatives from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies made their cases in support of or opposition to the JTTF.
Eudaly noted she was a member of a group in the 1990s that had been illegally surveilled by the PPB, and is familiar with other cases in which the FBI did the same to left-leaning activist organizations.
“How do we justify the risk of civil and human rights violations by our continued involvement in JTTF?” Eudaly asked the group.
“[We] recognize mistakes have occurred,” said Billy Williams, US Attorney for Oregon. “Groups advocating for review and policy changes are so critical for us being better at what we do.”
City commissioner met Tuesday to learn more about the JTTF before today’s vote. Alex Zielinski
Eudaly also asked how the feds are using their resources to address white nationalism, an issue that was further pursued by Mayor Ted Wheeler. In a pointed question to the two PPB officers who sit on the JTTF—who participated in the work session via speakerphone, to protect their identities—Wheeler asked, “Is it fair to say that the increase in violent extremism by white nationalists that we see in the news reflects the types of cases that you routinely investigate?”
The officers, named Matt and Brian, answered in unison: “Yes.”
Another concern brought up in past city talks regarding the JTTF is the opaque nature of the PPB’s work on the task force. PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw will only be informed about what work her JTTF officers are involved in if those officers—or the FBI—decide she needs to know. The same goes for Wheeler.
According to Renn Cannon, the special agent in charge of the Portland Division of the FBI, such alerts happen “frequently.” Outlaw is currently in the process of obtaining the necessary federal security clearance needed to have greater access to JTTF information. Wheeler is not, Cannon noted.
“We normally don’t do this for political figures,” Cannon told the Mercury last week.
Civil rights advocates, including the ACLU and Unite Oregon, have also raised serious concerns that the PPB’s involvement in the JTTF violates local and state laws that bar law enforcement from collaborating with federal immigration enforcement. Cannon confirmed that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does not sit on the JTTF, but that members of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection do.
“We don’t do investigations because of somebody’s immigration status,” Cannon told the Mercury. However, in a recent op-ed published in the Oregonian, Cannon wrote, “We only use immigration violations when there are no other options to disrupt crimes or violence.”
“We don’t do investigations because of somebody’s immigration status.”
When asked in the work session if they have been assigned to work on immigration cases, both of the PPB’s JTTF officers said no.
“I wouldn’t do it, and we haven’t been asked to do it,” Brian added. Both officers also affirmed that their work on the JTTF has never broken Oregon law.
Critics argue that the officers’ association with an FBI-led task force still sends the wrong message to Portland’s minority communities.
“FBI investigations have a damage on our community,” said Kimberly McCullough, the legislative director of the ACLU of Oregon, at the January community meeting. “They harm community trust, they chill political activity, some people are afraid to engaging in their own religious practices.”
McCullough added that the PPB’s involvement in the JTTF could keep communities from contacting local law enforcement out of fear they could be noticed by the FBI.
Millie’s history with the FBI reflects this reality. Mille says she was sexually assaulted as a teenager, after her father was released from prison. But knowing PPB’s relationship with the FBI, her parents kept her from reporting it to the Portland police.
“It makes people feel a lot safer when we can trust the police,” she said.
“We are much more successful at connecting suspects to mental health or drug treatment services when we have the participation of local officers.”
The FBI’s top argument for PPB remaining in the JTTF is safety: Having two officers who have security clearance with the FBI allows law enforcement to work more swiftly in the event of a terrorist attack, according to Cannon, who calls the JTTF a “safety net.”
“Anytime you cut a line in that net, you create a potential hole,” Cannon told the Mercury. “Our investigation is going to be slowed down by not having access to information. It’s not the most effective way of doing things.”
Jessica Anderson, the supervisor for the international terrorism unit of the Portland Division of the FBI, said that PPB officers also help the FBI connect suspects with local social services.
“We are much more successful at connecting suspects to mental health or drug treatment services when we have the participation of local officers,” Anderson said at the Tuesday work session.
Even if the PPB leaves the JTTF, Cannon told the Mercury, “the sky’s not going to fall.” He adds that FBI will still work closely with the PPB when there’s any hint of a domestic terror threat.
“Will it become a bit harder? Yes. Are we less safe? Yes, but it’s a small difference,” Cannon said. “I can say it’s a fact the teamwork will not be as robust [and] it may create some inefficiencies. But there is still a safety net, there are still plenty of people working in the JTTF.”
Portland City Council will vote on the city’s involvement with the JTTF at 2 pm.