Federal prosecutors in Portland revealed new charges against protesters Wednesday, signaling a change in the U.S. Department of Justice’s approach to the racial justice protests that have continued in the city for more than 95 consecutive days.
The charges are connected to incidents that did not take place on federal property and did not involve threats to federal law enforcement personnel. The individuals are charged with civil disorder, which is the first time that charge has been used in Oregon by federal prosecutors, a spokesman for the Oregon U.S. attorney’s office said.
Jesse Herman Bates’ civil disorder charge stems from an incident on July 13 after the FBI said he used a slingshot to strike a Portland firefighter with a ball bearing. The firefighter medic was part of a crew trying to put out a fire in an intersection in downtown Portland, which was blocking traffic, according to court records.
The incident was witnessed by a deputy with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. Bates, 38, from Seattle, was arrested hours later and then released. He’s also facing a number of state charges, including carrying a concealed weapon. He was arrested on federal charges in Seattle by local bike cops on Tuesday and transferred to Oregon by the FBI.
Portland resident Michelle Peterson O’Connor, 31, was also charged with civil disorder for throwing a helmet at a Portland police officer on Aug. 24 outside PPB’s North Precinct after police declared the protest a riot, according to court papers.
While a PPB officer was arresting another person, O’Connor “was seen picking up a black helmet from the ground and, from a distance of three to five feet, throwing the Helmet” at a PPB officer, hitting the officer in the head, the FBI alleged in court documents. The officer said his “bell was rung” and he had head and neck pain, court documents state.
O’Connor told authorities “she was attempting to ‘un-arrest’ a friend when she hit the officer, and admitted she made a mistake,” court documents state.
The Multnomah County district attorney’s office didn’t immediately respond to questions about either case. No charges appeared in the state court system for O’Connor.
Both O’Connor and Bates could face five years in prison if convicted.
News of the charges comes as some activists in Portland had already questioned whether federal authorities will be taking a stepped-up role in the protests.
On Sunday, Gov. Kate Brown announced a “unified law enforcement plan” meant to free up resource-strapped Portland police to investigate crimes. As part of the effort, Brown said the FBI and federal prosecutors would contribute more resources, and Oregon State Police troopers would once again be on hand at protests.
“The FBI is going to take a larger role in these nightly acts of violence,” Renn Cannon, the special agent in charge of the FBI Portland field office, told OPB last week. “It’s straining the city. It’s straining the county. It’s straining the state.”
As was the case when state police helped to protect Portland’s federal courthouse in August, troopers in Portland will be authorized to enforce federal law while policing protests. That’s led to speculation that state police will look to route prosecutions through U.S. Attorney Billy Williams’ office rather than send them to Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, who enforces state laws.
That’s not a far-flung theory, given recent comments by the OSP. When the agency ceased protecting the federal courthouse last month, it issued a pointed jab at Schmidt’s decision not to prosecute low-level crimes from the protests.
“At this time we are inclined to move those resources back to counties where prosecution of criminal conduct is still a priority,” OSP Capt. Timothy Fox said at the time.
Even so, officials have downplayed the notion that state police will refuse to send crimes through Schmidt’s office.
Charles Boyle, a press secretary for Gov. Kate Brown, said the arrangement is merely a continuation of OSP’s presence in Portland in August.
“Some OSP troopers were federally deputized earlier this summer in order to be able to even enter the Hatfield Courthouse during their assignment downtown,” Boyle said in a statement. “They are committed to working with our community, with the goal of protecting free speech, keeping the peace, and keeping people safe as they exercise their right to peacefully protest. The U.S. Attorney and Multnomah County DA work together every day deciding which cases each will prosecute.”
Asked about the arrangement, Fox, the OSP spokesman, said the agency has “worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office to review OSP arrests for potential prosecution of criminal behavior. Most of OSP resources assigned to Portland have been cross deputized by the U.S. Marshals.”
If state troopers are in fact hesitant to work with authorities in Portland and Multnomah County, they’re not alone.
A day after Brown announced that, as part of her new policing plan, law enforcement agencies in Gresham, Washington County and Clackamas County would be asked to help with protests, each of the agencies had an announcement of their own: They weren’t interested.
“At this time, I do not plan to send deputies to work directly in Portland,” read a statement from Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett. “The lack of political support for public safety, the uncertain legal landscape, the current volatility combined with intense scrutiny on use of force presents an unacceptable risk if deputies were deployed directly.”