Portland mayor moving ahead with push for tougher penalties for protesters

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB) and Celina Tebor (Portland, OR)
Jan. 12, 2021 1:56 a.m.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler expanded on his proposals to crack down on property destruction in an interview on “Think Out Loud” Monday, framing law enforcement as ill-equipped to apprehend suspects and calling on state legislators to help “update the tool kit” of police officers.


The mayor said the small group of protesters who continue to commit acts of vandalism and property destruction in the name of racial justice have proven elusive for law enforcement. He said the groups are smaller than the crowds that gathered over the summer for the nightly demonstrations. They’re clad in black and don’t always announce their plans on social media. They act quickly.

“And then they disappear into the wind,” said Wheeler. “Those tactics have evolved to a degree where we now find the law enforcement tools that we have in place are dated.”

On Jan. 1, after a New Year’s Eve demonstration where protesters shattered windows of storefronts and lobbed fireworks at buildings, Wheeler first announced he wanted to see tougher penalties for people repeatedly caught vandalizing property and committing acts of violence. The mayor said he wanted more leeway for police to record protesters and harsher punishment for demonstrators who have been charged with multiple low-level offenses.

Those ideas quickly drew scrutiny for both their feasibility and legality. Some civil rights experts warned there were already tough sanctions in place for property crimes and argued expanding law enforcement’s power to surveil citizens could disproportionately harm people of color.

It was also unclear if the mayor had the buy-in to put his proposals into play. The Oregonian reported last week that proposals regarding protest-related crimes were absent from the city’s state legislative agenda, which the council approved last week and requires unanimous support from the commissioners. Meanwhile, Multnomah County’s new District Attorney Mike Schmidt has pledged to move away from tough-on-crime policies like the mayor is championing.

But Wheeler said Monday he believed that Schmidt was in broad agreement with his proposals — though the district attorney’s office needed more support to prosecute.


“What [Schmidt] has said to me — and he makes good sense when he says it — is that he can’t prosecute if we don’t provide good evidence,” he said.

Brent Weisberg, a spokesperson for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office, said this was an accurate statement.

“We continue to work with law enforcement to identify, investigate and prosecute criminal conduct, including property destruction and violence,” he wrote. “It is our current, and continuing policy, to prosecute these offenses whenever possible, using all legally obtained evidence submitted to our office for review.”

To provide stronger evidence for the district attorney’s office, Wheeler said he wants police to have more leeway to film protesters. In July, a Multnomah County judge temporarily barred Portland police from collecting video and audio of protesters in public unless it “relates to an investigation of criminal activities.” The ruling was in response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU arguing that state law bans police from recording people due to their political or religious beliefs if they’re not suspected of criminal activity.

But the mayor said the case has left the police force unable to livestream acts of criminal destruction while they’re in process.

“The police can’t begin to record until the criminal destruction has already taken place,” said Wheeler. “And so if you have people showing up quickly, dressed head to toe in disguise, and the police — even if they know where they’re going — do not have the ability to film the criminal destruction, there is no evidence.”

A spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau declined to elaborate on the rules officers are operating under in regards to videotaping at protests, citing pending litigation.

Wheeler said he wants to ask state lawmakers to convene a workgroup during this legislative session to discuss “strengthening or clarifying legislative intent on existing state statutes to give law enforcement more tools,” including more freedom to record at protests and stronger penalties for people who have been charged with multiple crimes.

Wheeler cited his own recent interaction with law enforcement as an example of why the current penalties aren’t working. Last Thursday, the mayor was “swatted” in the shoulder by a woman after a group of protesters spotted him out to dinner in Nob Hill. He was told the demonstrator, who was identified by police as Tracy Molina, a regular attendee of the nightly protests, was “well known to the police” and had been arrested upwards of six times.

“I would love to see that individual prosecuted as a repeat offender,” said Wheeler. “So even though she’s engaged in low-level activity, I think by the time you’ve done it 3 or 4 or 7 or 8 times, there should be a stiffer penalty.”

Wheeler’s office had previously said the mayor declined to press charges against Molina.