Mike Schmidt

Mike Schmidt

Courtesy of Chris Mueller

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Last month, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced that he wouldn’t pursue charges against most of the people that Portland police were arresting during nightly protests.

That included people whose alleged crimes didn’t involve violence, theft or deliberate property damage.

Portland police got the memo, but they’re not heeding it. They continue to arrest people for offenses that officers know won’t be prosecuted.

Schmidt talked to “Think Out Loud” about his approach to the job and the protests. Use the audio player at the top of this story to listen to the entire conversation.

On the kinds of crimes his office will prosecute

“What we’re looking for is anybody who is causing property damage is causing harm to others, threatening harm, setting fires, things like that. We’re gonna focus on people who are creating damage.”

On why he wants to limit prosecutions

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“We are in a pandemic environment. The court system is not able to continue functioning the way that it was or the way that normally would. There are different challenges that that presents. We are in a resource-challenged environment and I have to prioritize the crimes that really have an impact on public safety.”

On the context this moment brings

“The criminal justice system is the system that is at the forefront of the protests. It’s not the only system that is being protested for racial disparity or inequity, but it certainly is the one that is at the front of it. Using that same system to, essentially, potentially silence or chill speeches is inherently problematic. And so we want to be as careful using that power as we possibly can to both respect people’s voices and their First Amendment rights, while at the same time dedicating resources to keeping our community safe. …

"We can actually do damage to the legitimacy of the criminal justice system if we are seen being heavy handed and potentially chilling legitimate speech that is critical of this very system.”

On whether he thinks his policy is working

“I think that focusing on the people who actually cause harm and not focusing on people who are out there having their voice heard is having the impact that we had hoped it would have. I’m aware that some legal observers have been arrested — people who are are clearly there to observe and document what’s going on — and that there’s no evidence that they were actually involved in a harm. I think the prosecution of those individuals could have led to increased protests. Whereas, conversely, focusing on people and looking at conduct and not speech, I think, has had the impact of potentially cooling some of the protests and saying: ‘Look, this is the type of behavior we’re not going to tolerate. We’re going to make cases on these types of things when you are engaged in conduct that is hurting others or damaging property.’ I think it’s having the impact that I hoped.”

On his relationship with Portland police

“At the end of the day, it’s a symbiotic relationship. My office will not be successful without police and police similarly will not be successful without my office. And so we have to work together. …. We haven’t exactly been on the same page, but I hope to get there. And I think there’s a lot of good men and women in the Portland Police Bureau and other agencies that feel similarly.”

On receiving death threats

“I certainly have received a lot of that. And that’s challenging. And it’s challenging for any public official who is trying to step up and do their job. And unfortunately, that is part of the game. It’s not only me — prosecutors in my office have received death threats for doing their jobs. … There’s a lot of emotions right now, and the vitriol is at a level that is it’s really challenging to have a conversation and remember that at the end of the day we’re humans. We’re people. We have families. And we’re doing this work because we care deeply about our community. And we’re trying to do the best that we can.”

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