Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Friday that a city police officer should be fired if they were responsible for the leak falsely tying Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to a hit-and-run.

“If it turned out that someone in the Portland police bureau had leaked critical information related to an ongoing criminal investigation to a group of individuals for a political purpose, I would see that as an extremely serious offense,” Wheeler told OPB’s Think Out Loud. “It would be my preference to terminate such an individual.”

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Mayor Ted Wheeler, Police Chief Chuck Lovell and District Attorney Mike Schmidt speak at a press conference Aug. 30, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, Police Chief Chuck Lovell and District Attorney Mike Schmidt speak at a press conference Aug. 30, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

The leak happened March 3 after a 911 caller mistakenly identified Hardesty as the driver of a vehicle that hit her car. Someone with knowledge of the incident leaked the information to conservative media outlets and local news outlets, who then published a story about the allegation.

Hardesty was cleared of any wrongdoing the same day.

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Wheeler’s comments came days after Portland Police Association president Brian Hunzeker resigned from the rank-and-file officer’s union, citing “a serious, isolated mistake related to the Police Bureau’s investigation into the alleged hit-and-run by Commissioner Hardesty.” The union has not offered specifics as to what that mistake was, despite fervent demands from both Wheeler and Hardesty for details.

“I do not and I cannot compel him to tell me what that mistake was,” Wheeler said Friday. “I have made it very clear: I expect him forthwith to tell people what that mistake was.”

Following his departure from the union, the police bureau reassigned Hunzeker to a patrol post at Portland’s North Precinct.

The mayor noted he might not have the power to fire the officer responsible for the leak, despite his desire to do so. The current contract allows the police union to appeal disciplinary decisions to an outside arbitrator empowered to overturn the decision. A decision by such an arbitrator is binding and can’t be appealed. As a result, the ultimate decision to discipline or fire police officers doesn’t lie with the police chief, police commissioner, the City Council or a citizen oversight committee. That power lies with an outside arbitrator who isn’t accountable to voters.

The hurdles in place preventing Wheeler from disciplining the officer responsible for the leak are partly what brought Hardesty and the police union into conflict. The commissioner pushed to get an independent police oversight board, with the power to discipline and fire police officers, on last November’s ballot. That initiative passed with overwhelming support from voters, despite the union’s continued insistence that it must be negotiated into unionized officers’ contract.

“All of our officers are entitled to due process, and what I want may not comport with what is allowed under that collectively bargained agreement,” Wheeler acknowledged.

The bureau has initiated an internal affairs investigation into the leak. The mayor has also promised an outside investigation into the incident, though the scope of that investigation is still under debate.

Hardesty is pushing for a broader investigation that will look into the role of white supremacy in the police bureau and any connection between officers and far-right media.

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