This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Read Part 1 here.
To businesses and property owners in downtown Portland, Echelon Protective Services’ seamless slip into a police role was a lifeline.
But to the people taxpayers pay to provide public safety in Portland — the city police and county prosecutors — the area’s growing reliance on a private security firm was a source of deepening alarm. Within months of Echelon’s arrival downtown in July 2020, records show, law enforcement officials — both within the police bureau and the district attorney’s office — faced mounting stories of misconduct from Echelon employees but had few tools for holding the company accountable.
Many of these reports hit the desk of Matt Jacobsen. An acting sergeant with the bureau’s Central Precinct Neighborhood Response Team, Jacobsen was well-sourced in the area, particularly among the homeless population.
According to police reports, several people with “knowledge of the day to day” activities in Old Town told Jacobsen that guards had swept a group of campers off the sidewalk along Northwest Couch Street during Christmas week. Jacobsen was told guards had handed campers an “Oregon Exclusion Form,” informing them they were not allowed back.
Jacobsen declined to be interviewed for this story. According to the narrative he provided in his police report, he followed up on the tip and found two campers who said they’d been given a trespass notice by Echelon guards because “they were homeless sleeping on the sidewalk.” Jeffrey Strebing told Jacobsen he’d been given a notice in October 2020 after refusing to move his tent away from the front of Old Town’s Hobo Bar, according to the report. Sue Carter said she had the same experience around 1 or 2 a.m. on Dec. 14 on Northwest Davis Street.
These warnings from Echelon were more extensive than the typical trespassing handout. If a person was banned from one Echelon property, they were automatically banned from 25 of the Old Town properties that Echelon patrolled. Strebing and Carter’s notices, both reviewed by OPB, include a screenshot of a Google map dotted with tiny pink hearts, demarking the businesses Strebing and Carter could no longer enter.
An Echelon guard confirmed to Jacobsen that the company used these notices as a way to keep people from sleeping in front of the businesses that hired it, according to an interview transcript.
Private security guards have the authority to bar an individual from private property they are paid to protect, but a private security company such as Echelon has no power to move or ban people from a sidewalk outside a business, which is public property. (A spokesperson for the Portland police said there are exceptions for an alcove or recessed doorway, but, for the most part, “camping on a sidewalk is not trespassing.”)
Last winter, Echelon’s tactics turned more aggressive. On Feb. 6, Portland police officer Sarah Payton responded to a call of multiple screaming, swearing men tearing apart a homeless camp on Southwest 12th and Taylor — the same camp nearby property owner John DiLorenzo would later pay Echelon to surveil.
Residents of the campsite recounted a chaotic scene to police officers, according to police reports from the incident. Two residents told police they were awoken to yelling men, who scattered their belongings — including a camp stove — and dragged multiple tents into the street. One camper recalled a guard yelling, “No room for homeless here now.” A resident of The Gentry, the building across the street owned by DiLorenzo, told police they watched a man bang together two metal pipes and scream, “It’s time to wake up! Everyone needs to get the fuck up.” It was roughly 3:45 a.m.
Another Gentry tenant, Ian Gieryn, later told OPB he’d just gotten home from his night shift as a forklift driver when he heard residents of the apartment building yelling out their windows for the men to stop destroying the camp. One guard responded, “What? Do you want them to come to live with you?” Gieryn dialed 911.
By the time police arrived, three tents and “many possessions” were scattered in the road. Though the men had left by the time Payton arrived, she wrote in her report that, based on witness accounts, “the demeanor of these two subjects was similar to problems we have had with Echelon in the past.” Jacobsen later got a subpoena for Echelon security reports from that time period and was able to confirm the men were Echelon guards on patrol for the Downtown Development Group, which owns the parking lot near the camp, according to a police report.
A security guard working for a different company a block away filmed the last minute of the encounter on his phone. The video, which he sent to police and later to OPB, shows one of the guards attempting to pull the tarp off a tent and then slapping it. Both guards later told Jacobsen they couldn’t tell if it was them in the video, according to interview transcripts included in the police reports. One Echelon guard told Jacobsen he considered their activities that night “housekeeping.”
Video: On Feb. 6, a Portland police officer responded to a call of multiple screaming, swearing men tearing apart a homeless camp at Southwest 12th and Taylor. An employee of another security company captured video of the final moment of the clash between Echelon security and people who lived in tents at the location.
Payton wrote in her initial police report that she believed she had probable cause to arrest the men for criminal mischief and disorderly conduct because they appeared to have illegally moved property on a public sidewalk. But since law enforcement couldn’t determine which guard did what, the district attorney decided not to prosecute.
By then, Echelon was well known within the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office for precisely this kind of case.
In Echelon’s incident report, one of the guards wrote that they spent their time on Southwest 12th that February evening picking up trash that nobody wanted.
“No occupied tents were disturbed,” the guard wrote. “No contact with any transients was made.”
This report was “clearly inconsistent with what had actually happened,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Adam Gibbs wrote in a Sept. 1 memo, obtained through a records request.
It was the second memo he’d written in less than a year to Chief Deputy District Attorney Kirsten Snowden detailing concerns with Echelon’s credibility.
“The employees involved in this case are completely different from the employees involved in the prior incidents, which indicates that this cannot just be written off as attributed only to a one particular bad actor,” Gibbs continued.
While private security guards do not have the same arresting powers as police, they are able to detain someone under a citizen’s arrest if they see what they believe to be a crime taking place. They must then turn over the person to the police without “undue delay,” according to the state’s training. Police may decide to formally arrest the person based on what guards tell them. If they do make an arrest, the case may be routed to the district attorney for potential prosecution.
A few months after Echelon first began servicing downtown Portland businesses, Gibbs started to notice a pattern with cases that relied on guards’ testimony: Their accounts rarely told the full story.
For example, prosecutors received a case involving a woman who had been sitting in the doorway of a property Echelon patrols on Southwest First Avenue and Ash Street on Oct. 8, 2020. An Echelon guard told police she refused to move and that when he tried to place her into custody, she rammed a shopping cart into his leg, according to a section of the police report reviewed by the district attorney’s office. Police arrived and arrested the woman for criminal trespassing and harassment.
But an Echelon security report reviewed by the district attorney’s office stated that the woman never refused to leave but rather “complied without issue.” Gibbs dismissed the case due to the discrepancies. He also noted the report did not establish probable cause to detain the woman for trespassing.
Related: Part 1: The sudden and troubling rise of a private police force in Downtown Portland
Another woman was detained by an Echelon guard on June 24, 2020, after she pulled on the door handles of sheriffs’ cars near the downtown courthouse, according to the district attorney’s review of the case. The guard told police that, when he confronted the woman, she walked toward him and began throwing punches, according to a section of the police report included in the district attorney’s summary of the case. At that point, the guard used his Taser and the woman fell to the ground.
But according to a video of the encounter reviewed by prosecutors, the woman never punched the guard. The video does show the guard deploying his Taser multiple times after she first falls to the ground. According to Gibbs’ review of the video, the woman appeared to have her back turned and was moving away when he used the stun gun on her for the final time.
“These cases have revealed material discrepancies in the statements of these Echelon employees when compared to their subsequent reports and/or external evidence of their conduct,” Gibbs wrote in an October 2020 memo detailing concerns with three cases involving Echelon. “This is of concern in any case, but of heightened concern as it has tended to focus on their uses of force on the job.”
The most significant omission came in Echelon’s account of an arrest made on Oct. 7, 2020.
In an Echelon report included in the police file, a guard wrote that he had placed 46-year-old Katherine Hoffman “under arrest” for assaulting him near the corner of Northwest Broadway and Northwest Glisan Street. He said he and his partner had observed a group of people “blocking a pedestrian way.” When the guards made contact with the campers, they became “hostile,” and Hoffman hurled a yogurt container at him. As the guard tried to take Hoffman into custody, she bit him hard on his left hand, according to the report.
The guard does not mention using any force in his report. Two witnesses later told police that the guard slammed Hoffman to the ground so hard that her “shirt came up and her breasts were exposed,” according to a police report. One witness said Hoffman was struck in the head with a baton. Another recounted a guard kneeling into Hoffman’s back to pin her down.
During a police follow-up investigation, the guard denied intentionally striking Hoffman and said he was trying to “create space” with the baton.
“I had it in my hand, I didn’t hit her with it,” he told police. “But it did hit her.”
Surveillance camera video reviewed by OPB also shows a guard yanking a tent as he walks away around the time of the encounter with Hoffman. The guard told Jacobsen he “knocked” on the tent to let the group know the guards were leaving, according to an interview transcript included in the police report.
Hoffman, who is still camped near the intersection, said she’s tried to forget most of the incident. But she remembers being awoken around 1 a.m. and told to move by two “belligerent” men.
A week after the arrest, District Attorney Mike Schmidt dropped the charges of assault and harassment against Hoffman. And his office informed intake attorneys about a new policy: they should not pursue charges in any case that hinged on testimony from an Echelon guard.
“I have been disturbed by allegations of misconduct by employees of Echelon Protective Services,” Schmidt told OPB in a written statement. “Taken together, they suggest that Echelon staff are inadequately trained in conflict de-escalation, the use of force as a last resort only, and basic tactical considerations meant to protect both themselves and the members of the public with whom they interact.”
Click play to hear a compilation of calls to 911 from that night:
Holding private security firms accountable
As private security firms proliferate, the agencies tasked with deterring misconduct in the industry are getting a massive stress test.
It’s an open question: Are the current rules and regulations strong enough to keep the ballooning industry in check?
In Oregon, much of the oversight responsibility falls to the state’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the agency tasked with certifying and training both private security guards and police officers.
Despite the private security industry becoming increasingly police-like, the two sectors are held to vastly different standards. The agency requires 38 hours of training — about a week’s worth — for armed guards, plus an annual four-hour refresher course. Municipal police officers in Oregon, meanwhile, are required to have a minimum 16 weeks of training.
While police officers are required to report each use of force to supervisors, state regulators do not require private guards to do any incident reporting. The agency can fine or revoke the license of a security guard who flouted the rules, but they have no authority to shut down a company that has repeatedly misstepped. (The Oregon Legislature recently passed a bill to change this, which will go into effect in 2024.)
In this lax environment, private security firms may have little incentive to train their employees on best practices. Echelon manager Reid Kerr told police earlier this year that the company does not have an employee handbook, policy manual, or guide book for policies and procedures, according to a police report related to the attempted sweep outside The Gentry on Feb. 6. Kerr told Jacobsen that Echelon “usually” trains employees upon being hired.
“I asked why they did not have a policy manual or training program (as they send employees armed with firearms into the public) and Kerr told me that the company was, ‘Pretty new,’ and had not had the ability to develop either yet,” Jacobsen wrote in a Feb. 14 police report.
The founders first registered Echelon with the state in January 2019. The company website states employees “must complete a field training program.” It also says many Echelon guards have prior law enforcement experience with “skills ranging from: S.W.A.T., K.9., narcotics, military, and anti-terrorism.”
Echelon owner Alex Stone, a former police officer in Clatskanie, Oregon, did not respond to a detailed list of questions for this story, including what training Echelon guards receive.
Interview transcripts with Echelon guards included in the various police reports involving the company indicate employees were never given clear instruction on what constitutes the perimeter of the building in Portland— a critical detail for guards tapped to patrol private property. One guard said they considered anything within “six to eight feet” of the edge of the building to be private during the evening, and thus space guards can deem off limits. Another said they thought the rule was 3 feet though they were “not exactly sure.”
Echelon guards are not the only ones who have appeared hazy on what they are and aren’t allowed to do with regards to homeless encampments. During the course of reporting this story, OPB learned of a private security guard with Portland Patrol Inc. who, in April of this year, created a notice falsely informing campers at 12th and Taylor they had to leave the area.
According to emails obtained by OPB through a records request, the guard was patrolling the area for the nonprofit Downtown Clean & Safe, which contracts with Portland to provide additional security and cleaning in the center city. After being told about the notice, Maureen Fisher, who was the head of Downtown Clean & Safe at the time, said she confirmed one of their guards had copied and pasted language from the city code that prohibits campers in the public right of way. The notice shows a city of Portland seal in the top left corner. At the bottom, someone scrawled “CLEANUP ON 4/27/21 (Tuesday) @ 9 a.m.”
City officials warned Fisher that it was an illegal use of the city’s seal and would “likely lead to civil litigation,” according to emails.
Fisher apologized and said the employee had explained to her he believed “he was providing the services he was hired to perform.” The guard no longer works for Portland Patrol.
Multnomah County weighs in
The state regulatory agency says the responsibility to deter bad actors doesn’t rest entirely with them. If private guards break the law, it’s a local district attorney’s job to prosecute them.
But records and emails show Multnomah County’s top prosecutors feel they, too, have little power to hold private security firms accountable for misconduct — even when it’s a company they no longer trust.
“I understand from these memos that we are unable to pursue criminal charges against the company or employees involved in these documented incidents at this time,” Schmidt wrote in an email to Gibbs and his policy director, Aaron Knott, in October. “What I would like from you is to tell me what options I do have to address these issues.”
In a statement to OPB, Schmidt hinted his office may be looking to push for a policy solution to strengthen accountability.
“While I believe that the use of private security firms can fill an important role in maintaining the safety of our businesses, this belief is absolutely conditioned on those firms demonstrating their true commitment to the safety and dignity of everyone with whom they interact,” Schmidt said. “If existing law is insufficient to ensure that level of professionalism, it should be strengthened.”
Portlanders soon will get a sense of just how much protection the law offers private security guards.
Related: Guard hired to protect Portland businesses wasn’t firearm certified when he killed man
A Multnomah County grand jury is currently deciding if Logan Gimbel, a private security guard who fatally shot a man named Freddy Nelson Jr. at a North Portland shopping plaza in May, should face criminal charges. A decision is expected this month.
To industry observers, the case represents a worst-case scenario for what can unfold when poorly trained private security take on a policing role. Nelson was shot four times through his windshield by a guard who did not have a license to carry a gun while on the job
Tom D’Amore, who is representing the Nelson family in a civil suit against the private firm that employed Gimbel, said the grand jury decision will set a significant precedent: Either the criminal justice system can hold guards accountable for excessive use of force — or they can find protection by claiming self-defense.
“If we let things like this go, then we’re getting back to the wild, wild West,” D’Amore said. “Oregonians need to see that justice is done.”
But while lawyers such as D’Amore and prosecutors look to regulate and curtail the power of private security, one important constituency has given Echelon a receptive ear: The staff of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Part 3, coming Friday: The county prosecutor may have concerns, and homeless advocates may be horrified, but city leaders have embraced Echelon’s investigative work — and it’s having a direct impact on the political fight over homelessness.