With two months left until he faces voters, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has pledged to take a different tack to leading his city.
Speaking behind a podium in an empty City Hall chamber Wednesday, the mayor issued a mea culpa of sorts, promising to lead both better and more visibly. Wheeler said he felt he hadn’t been focused enough on the crises facing the city and had failed to engage with Portlanders “enough or in the right way.”
“Frankly, I have not been focused enough on the two issues that are the most important to the city of Portland,” he said. “And right now, that is ending the nightly violence and getting our community back on its feet. And number two, it’s about economic recovery, both for our households and our small businesses. I need to focus like a laser beam on those two issues.”
The mayor said he planned to start this new direction with two meetings.
The first would take place Wednesday evening with the police bureau, when he planned to ask if they needed more resources to bring protests to “a peaceful conclusion.” Wheeler said he also wanted to see what ideas the bureau has to hold officers accountable “in real time” rather than through the city’s Independent Police Review, where a complaint against an officer can take months to work its way through the system. The mayor did not specify with whom he was meeting inside the bureau.
The second meeting will be Thursday with “key stakeholders” from the business community to ask what the city can do to help downtown. The announcement comes on the heels of Willamette Week reporting that a prominent downtown property owner had delivered a heated letter to the City Council saying they were abdicating their duties and endorsing lawlessness in the area.
Asked by a reporter why this new approach has taken 90 days, the mayor paused for a few seconds before responding.
“I’ve been trying to do too much, and I’ve been trying to do it alone,” he said.
He noted the city has been facing crises on multiple fronts for months now: a deepening recession, a worsening pandemic and near-nightly protests that regularly end in clashes between police and demonstrators.
Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty have both offered ideas on different approaches to policing protests, including a ban on tear gas and restrictions on the use of impact munitions as a crowd-control technique. Hardesty has now twice asked the mayor to give her control of the police bureau.
After a reporter noted the mayor often appeared to be making these announcements alone, Wheeler said he didn’t “blame anybody else except myself.”
“I’m the mayor, I’m the leader of this city,” he said. “And ultimately if people aren’t standing with me it’s because I have not asked them in the right way or I haven’t put the right value proposition in front of them.”
In addition to meetings scheduled with business and police, the mayor said he has also been meeting regularly with demonstrators who have expressed a broad array of demands to him. That morning, the mayor said he met with a man who he felt had “a bunch of very thoughtful ideas.” Last week, he said he had a meeting that consisted primarily of being cursed out with expletives. He added he had needed to end the meeting slightly early as his daughter was in the room.
In response to press questions, Wheeler spoke about two follow-ups he’d had with the Portland Police Bureau about officer behavior during recent protests.
After a violent clash between far-right activists, some brandishing firearms, and counterprotesters Saturday, the mayor’s office had said he was reviewing the bureau’s strategy with the police chief. Footage from the event shows the groups brawling for hours while officers stood on the sidelines.
“Nobody can look at those videos and say it doesn’t raise a whole bunch of questions,” Wheeler said. “It is clearly unacceptable for somebody in a crowd to brandish a gun.”
Alan swinney pulls a gun on the crowd. No shots fired. pic.twitter.com/f0jKX6nmNv— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) August 22, 2020
On Wednesday, Wheeler said that conversation about the bureau’s strategy with Lovell had already taken place — but had raised new questions for him, such as why the bureau didn’t have more officers ready, what the relationship was like between his police bureau and other law enforcement agencies, and whether the bureau was adequately planning for these events.
The mayor also addressed the police’s practice of slashing tires of vehicles near protests. He said the police bureau told him this was done because the cars between police and demonstrators were safety hazards, and it was the quickest way to “disable” vehicles.
This week, OPB published an interview with Wheeler, in which he described what he saw as the biggest challenge when it came to policing the nightly protests against police brutality: how to hold the small number of people committing crimes accountable without infringing on the First Amendment rights of everyone in a largely peaceful crowd. Police regularly respond with force against the entire crowd in response to a small fraction committing low-level crimes, such as lighting small fires or tagging buildings.
During Wednesday’s news conference, the mayor said he wanted to take steps to find an answer.
“I need to work with the police bureau to both, on one hand, create a respectful place for nonviolent demonstrations to take place. And on the other hand, enact strategies that make it clear that we are going to arrest and hold accountable that small group of people who are engaged in the nightly violence,” he said.
“It has gone on way too long.”
Wheeler is up for reelection in November and faces challenger Sarah Iannarone, a longtime community organizer who finished second in the May primary and helped deny Wheeler the 50% and change he needed to avoid a runoff. Don’t Shoot Portland founder Teressa Raiford is also running a write-in campaign.