U.S. Attorney Billy Williams said Wednesday Portland police will retain their status as federal deputies, despite Mayor Ted Wheeler’s request to revoke that status.
In a statement, Williams said the action was needed because city leaders haven’t done enough to quell violence at protests.
“The federal deputation supports front line law enforcement officers and their families in a way that they have not seen from City Hall,” Williams said. “Portlanders, and Oregonians in general are sick of the boarded-up and dangerous conditions prevalent in downtown Portland due to a lack of leadership.”
The current dispute is the aftermath of a police response that brought federal, state and local law enforcement together last weekend. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency ahead of a Sept. 26 far-right rally in Portland, and placed law enforcement under a unified command consisting of the Oregon State Police and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. As part of that preparation, the U.S. Marshals Service federally deputized 22 sheriff’s deputies and 56 members of the Portland Police Bureau’s Rapid Response Team.
As OPB first reported Tuesday, the federal deputy designation did not end with the far-right rally, however. It extends through the end of the year, a decision made by the U.S. Marshals according to Oregon State Police Capt. Timothy Fox.
Federal officials' interest in Portland extends far beyond last weekend’s Proud Boys rally, and deputizing local police fits with a wider strategy by the U.S. Department of Justice to harshly punish people who have participated in racial justice protests that have persisted for months.
In a statement released Wednesday on Facebook, Oregon State Police Superintendent Travis Hampton said the federal deputy status was an important part of law enforcement’s strategy to “supply accountability to violent extremists” at the Sept. 26 rally. But he also asked Williams to keep the federal status in place, despite calls from local leaders to end them immediately.
Hampton said keeping officers federally deputized allows “increased prosecutorial discretion if rioters should assault an officer.”
“It came from the state police,” said Portland Police Bureau Deputy Chief Chris Davis. “The way I heard about it was, Travis Hampton called me and said that this was happening as part of the plan for this past weekend’s events. That conversation was not phrased in a way where it sounded like a request. It sounded like that was the direction that he was going. That would have been well within his prerogative as the person put in charge of that event by the governor.”
Fifty Oregon State Police troopers were also federally deputized in August when they assumed security responsibilities outside the federal courthouse in downtown Portland as part of a deal to end the federal law enforcement response to protests. Those troopers will keep their status as federal deputies for one year.
In his statement, Hampton went so far as to suggest he will refuse to send Oregon State Police troopers into Portland if the deputations are revoked.
“OSP Troopers will not serve the City of Portland in any capacity that needlessly endangers them or their colleagues,” Hampton said.
Hampton’s statement Wednesday is the latest sign of a growing feud between local law enforcement and the elected leaders and residents to whom they are accountable.
Hampton and Portland police have been openly critical of Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt over his decision not to bring low-level charges against protesters. While Schmidt has charged numerous protesters with assault on a public safety officer, Deputy Chief Davis said the federal charges bring a harsher penalty.
“The DA has been diligent about prosecuting these cases wherever he can,” Davis said. “The federal system has a little bit stronger penalties for attacks on federal officers. If you realize the kind of attack that we’ve seen daily on Portland police officers since May will result in, potentially, federal prison time, I would think that would tend to make people think twice before they threw a full can of soup or a brick or a firebomb at a police officer.”
The federal government’s decision to deputize local law enforcement also comes after a protracted battle this summer over the presence of federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies on Portland streets. Between the Oregon State Police, the sheriff’s office and Portland police, there are now nearly as many federally deputized officers available for protests as at the height of conflicts in July.
“Governor Brown put Superintendent Hampton and Sheriff (Mike) Reese in charge of the joint incident command structure this weekend, with the specific goal of keeping Oregonians safe during Saturday’s planned demonstrations by white supremacist groups,” said Charles Boyle, Brown’s spokesperson.
Oregon State Police and Hampton ultimately report to the governor’s office.
Brown’s office has declined to answer questions about why federal deputations should extend through the end of the year, saying city and county leaders who want to rescind the federal deputy status can requests that change.
But as Wednesday’s announcement from U.S. Attorney Williams demonstrates, those requests may be rejected.
The closer relationship between local police and federal prosecutors has angered some.
“This is a coup by an unelected US Attorney," Juan Chavez, a civil rights attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center, wrote in a statement. "It’s unlawful, and flies in the face of federalism. We’re being sold out to Trump all because the State and City didn’t want to take on the police union.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Marshals Service told OPB it’s unusual for local law enforcement to be deputized as federal officers for such an open-ended period of time. Typically, deputations are for a specific operation, such as tracking down a fugitive, and end when the operation ends.
Brown’s spokespeople have also declined to answer when the governor learned that state and local officers had been granted ongoing federal deputy status, saying only that she entrusted operational details to Hampton, Reese and Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell.
Wheeler, who is Portland’s police commissioner in addition to being mayor, said he was not aware that designating local police as federal deputies would last through the end of the year until after they had taken place.
City Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty have issued similar calls for the federal deputy status to be revoked.
“I would ask that until that happens those officers not be out responding to the protests,” Hardesty wrote in a tweet. “Portlanders have been clear: we don’t need more deputized officers; we need de-escalation.”