In the first two parts of this series, OPB detailed the rising use of a private security force to police a broad area in downtown Portland and the concern among some police and county prosecutors about potential abuses and a lack of oversight. Today, in the final installment, a look at how the use of private guards is influencing Portland’s debate over homelessness.
They patrol. They detain. They investigate.
While regulation lags, private security firms like Echelon Protective Services have become an increasingly muscular substitute for taxpayer-funded policing in Portland. But despite increasing wariness from police and county prosecutors, other city leaders appear more comfortable with Echelon’s new role, even as it hits at the heart of the ongoing debate over how to handle the city’s homelessness crisis.
Take Echelon’s recent work investigating a homeless camp at Southwest 12th Avenue and Southwest Taylor Street. The report was spearheaded by attorney John DiLorenzo, who co-owns an apartment complex across the street, after he says he was faced with mounting complaints from tenants about the site. So he tapped Echelon to investigate it.
On Sept. 13, at about 9 p.m., Echelon’s investigators saw a woman they called Rose, who they referred to in the report as a “known prostitute,” enter a tent on the north side of the camp. She remained there for approximately 18 minutes. They monitored her for 20 more minutes as she sat in an office chair outside the tent cleaning her finger nails with an emery board. They photographed her as she did so.
Shown the page of the report dedicated to her, the woman identified as Rose told OPB she did not know when the photos were taken.
“It creeps me out,” she said. “It’s like having a creepy-ass, weird-ass … stalker.”
She said she also did not know why the document described her as a sex worker.
“Even when I was promiscuous nobody was paying me,” she said.
“Yeah, I stop by tents and hang out with friends,” she continued, adding that she also visits people who camp near the downtown Plaid Pantry and Safeway. “I used to be on the streets.”
The Echelon report cites “unconfirmed” reports that Rose lives in an apartment near Portland State University. She said that part is accurate.
On Sept. 28, at about 5:50 p.m. Echelon investigators watched another woman enter the tent of a man who they describe in the report as the campsite’s “block captain.” A few minutes later, they saw her leave “wiping her crotch with a pair of pink panties to clean herself.” They photographed her too.
The images are cataloged in the report under the header “suspected prostitution” — one of the six types of crime alleged in the document. The report also contains the full names of six campers and two visitors, as well as their criminal records, driver information, mug shots, employment history, and, in one case, political affiliation. The investigators note one visitor had known “ties with ANTIFA.”
Some of the information is clearly sourced: from interviews, court records, surveillance photos, and a website called antifawatch.net. But the origin of other details is unclear.
Federal and state statutes keep tight restrictions on who can access vehicle information — such as to whom a car is registered — and how that information can be used. The report includes the names and addresses of owners for three vehicles with Oregon plates. The Oregon DMV reports having no record of any Echelon employee requesting those details. Instead, the agency found Portland-based Brandon J. Squires Law Firm, which deals primarily in car-crash litigation, had searched the vehicles online on Sept. 21. Echelon’s report was finalized three weeks later.
Under Oregon law, attorneys are only allowed to get these types of records from the DMV if it is for a current case or in anticipation of litigation. Squires initially said no one from his company had searched the vehicles, and he had contacted his IT team to see if there was a security breach. He later emailed to say he had learned that someone using his office’s account, in fact, conducted the search, however it was not performed on behalf of the firm or any of its clients. State regulators say they’re following up with them.
“They’re not bound by the Constitution”
At the end of the report, which OPB obtained through a records request, Echelon investigators concluded the camp at Southwest 12th and Taylor should no longer exist.
“This camp is a significant risk to students, businesses, and the overall health of the community,” Echelon investigator Michael Bock wrote. “We believe that this encampment should be dissolved immediately.”
Tristia Bauman, a senior attorney with the National Homelessness Law Center who reviewed the report for OPB, said the document underscores the accountability problems that arise when private security is tapped for police work.
If police officers had been the ones doing this level of heightened surveillance, an attorney could potentially have alleged a violation of campers’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.
For example, one photo in the report appears to show two items — an open jar of peanut butter and a gun-mountable flashlight — on the floor inside a tent. If a police officer had taken the photo without consent, Bauman said, campers may have had grounds for a civil rights lawsuit. (In the report, investigators say the picture was taken from “plain view” into an open tent.)
But because the guards were not working on behalf of the government, Bauman said, any constitutional arguments likely don’t apply.
“One of the very concerning things about privatized space and the use of private security is that it is harder to show that constitutional rights apply, even when these private security officers are engaging in the same activities that police would be engaged in,” she said. “They’re not bound by the Constitution.”
Bauman said she found the report “horrifying,” an intrusive surveillance of people who had no house to retreat to and who have not formally been accused of any crime. She called the conclusion that the area would benefit from the camp’s removal “self-serving.”
“All of this struck me about being less about an investigation and more about surveilling for the purpose of promoting a narrative and to vilify a group of people,” she said. “The subtext is, ‘These people have to be removed because they’re bad people.’”
The final Oct. 16 report acts as a sort of Rorschach test for homelessness. Bauman said she saw no evidence of the serious criminal activity investigators alleged. The photos showed, to her eye, innocuous, personal activity. There were no eyewitness accounts of crimes. She said the criminal histories listed for camp residents suggests, at most, “a history of addiction and poverty.”
But to DiLorenzo, who asked Echelon to study the campsite amid rising complaints from his tenants, the report presented ample proof that the camp was a threat to surrounding neighbors and businesses.
Along with possible prostitution, investigators photographed what they suspected were drug deals taking place as students walked home from Lincoln High School a few blocks away. They documented the presence of loose syringes, propane tanks, glass pipes perched on piles of trash, and an uncapped Aquafina water bottle spilling what they believed to be urine onto the street. The report includes an account from an Echelon guard who said they were told by two campers that the area was “a staging area for trafficking women.”
“We had Echelon do what any person could do by watching 24/7 things that were going on in plain view. Nobody looked inside of tents. Nobody harassed anyone. It was merely an investigation of eyes looking at what was happening,” DiLorenzo told OPB. “And we were absolutely shocked.”
After the report was complete, he emailed it on Oct. 12 to Sam Adams, a top aide to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and a former Portland mayor himself.
“I did not demand anything,” DiLorenzo said. “I just wanted to present this because I wanted the powers-that-be to realize that there was a real criminal enterprise going on here.”
DiLorenzo wrote Adams that the document proved his “working hypothesis.”
“Encampments like this begin innocently enough, populated by unsheltered people who just want to protect themselves from the elements,” he wrote in an email OPB obtained through a public records request. “But then criminal elements who are conducting the narcotics trade and enterprises involving all sorts of vice move in and exploit those who are there, co-opting them into their criminal enterprises.
“I believe this is true of many of the encampments downtown and throughout the city and cannot be tolerated any longer.”
City reaction to Echelon report
DiLorenzo is used to pushing city and state leaders on behalf of business and property owners in Portland.
Since late 2020, the longtime lobbyist has threatened a class action lawsuit in response to Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus restrictions and tried to kill the statewide ban on evictions. He urged the Oregon Supreme Court to strike down Portland’s novel renter protections, which require landlords to pay renters’ moving fees if they increase rent.
In his email to Adams, DiLorenzo also asked for a meeting with “appropriate representatives” from the police and fire bureaus “as soon as possible,” so he and Echelon could “elaborate on the results of the investigation and lodge our formal complaints.”
Later that week, Adams invited Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell, Deputy Chief Mike Frome, the mayor’s chief of staff and livability director, the city attorney, staff from the city team responsible for camp removals, and three police officers to an hourlong Zoom. The meeting was a chance for Echelon to present its findings.
DiLorenzo said city officials received the report warmly.
“I think it validated the suspicions that many of the people who were given that report suspected all along, but just didn’t have the resources to provide,” he said. “I thought they were very receptive and thankful for the work we had done.”
In an interview, Adams said he found the report “alarming and frustrating,” though he would prefer the police bureau be the ones conducting these investigations rather than private security, who, he noted, had lower standards for reporting and training.
“I understand why it’s happening,” he said, noting the long wait times for people calling 911 and rising crime rate. “But honestly, I would like to see a lot less private security doing the work that the public expects the Portland Police to do.”
A day after the Oct. 18 presentation, officers made two arrests at the campsite and found a loaded gun, according to a police spokesperson. Within a week, the city’s impact reduction team had cleared the area of campers.
Adams said the report played little role in the date of the sweeps, downplaying the document as “part of thousands of complaints” the city receives and follows up with each week related to public safety. He said the mayor’s office was aware of the problems with Echelon voiced by police officers and the District Attorney’s office and went into the meeting “clear-eyed” with “evidence-based concerns about Echelon’s work.” The resulting clean up, he said, was based on “evidence collected by government staff.”
Adams sent OPB an email from the head of the city’s urban camping program sent Thursday stating the camp had already been on the city’s radar. The Echelon report, the staffer wrote, likely moved up the sweep of the Southwest 12th and Taylor camp by about a week.
After the sweep, the group held one more meeting to debrief. Adams, Lovell, city livability director Tom Miller and a representative from Echelon attended, as did a staff member with the city team responsible for camp removals.
That staffer was disturbed by the turn that conversation took, enough that they later recounted the discussion in a detailed email to their boss. OPB obtained the email through a records request.
According to the note, both Adams and DiLorenzo expressed an interest in widely publicizing the Echelon report, with Adams suggesting sharing the document with the media. The attendees also discussed “providing similar surveillance and investigation services to other large encampments around the City.”
“I was asked to provide examples of other locations where similar activities would likely be occurring,” the staff member wrote. “I did not provide specific details, but did share some general locations (for which I feel very regretful): I-205 MuP, Peninsula Crossing Trail, and SE Powell Blvd.”
Publicizing the Echelon report
Adams told OPB he felt it would be “incredibly useful” to make the report public, as he felt the private company’s investigation underscored the city’s need to hire more police who could look into criminal activity at other camps.
“The challenge we have right now is we don’t have enough personnel to be able to discern what is a safe camp and what is a dangerous camp,” he said.
But, according to the staff member’s email, DiLorenzo wanted the report sent elsewhere: To a political advocacy group called People for Portland.
“Mr. DiLorenzo expressed some concern with how it will likely be spun by the media and suggested that they coordinate with the People for Portland’s communications team to strategically disseminate the findings of Echelon’s investigation to better serve that group’s goals,” the city staffer wrote.
Since forming last summer, the organizers behind the People for Portland campaign have said their objective is simple: they want to light a fire under elected leaders to fix the city’s most pressing problems. To that end, the campaign has bombarded city officials with emails and the airwaves with ads to build more shelters and hire more police.
Progressives have accused the unknown backers of the campaign of a different goal: pushing the city’s homeless population out of the downtown core. They point to campaign materials, first reported by Willamette Week, that showed the campaign was considering a ballot measure “to require shelter enforcement” and ads that feature sinister black and white pictures of homeless camps. Three progressive leaders recently attacked the campaign in an op-ed as a “fear-mongering effort” harnessing hate toward the city’s most vulnerable residents and called on city council members to “denounce the corrosive tactics of this dark money campaign.” The campaign is a 501 (c)(4) and therefore not required to disclose its donors.
Whatever the end game, the city staffer appeared to want no part in talk of harnessing the report for potential political gains.
“At this point of the conversation I was extremely uncomfortable and surprised that this was being discussed with Chief Lovell and me still on the call,” the city staffer wrote. “It was my read that the Chief felt uncomfortable as well.”
There is one more connection between the Echelon report and People for Portland, buried on page 40.
For that section, titled “community stakeholders interviews,” investigators spoke with four people who had negative experiences in the area around the Southwest 12th and Taylor camp. Fay Gyapong-Porter, who runs Sunflower Dental, told investigators about people bathing in kiddie pools near her office and assaulting her patients.
Gyapong-Porter is also featured in a polished three-minute video released by People for Portland over the summer. In pink scrubs, she calls for leadership on a crescendo-ing crisis of people openly defecating, urinating, bathing and copulating downtown.
Gyapong-Porter said both appearances were the result of puzzling phone calls.
The first was this summer from a public relations company. She said they told her someone had suggested the People for Portland campaign speak with her about the state of Portland, but wouldn’t say who threw out her name. The caller also declined to say who was paying for their work.
Gyapong-Porter has made no secret that she is frustrated with the condition of the neighborhood. She assumed someone overheard her, and she agreed to be in the promotional video to share her message.
Weeks later, Gyapong-Porter received another strange call at her practice from a man asking to interview her on the state of downtown. The caller wouldn’t tell her what the interview was for. He would only say he was a private investigator and his first name was Mike. The conversation ended up summarized in the Echelon report. Investigator Michael Bock is listed as the author.
“I didn’t mind talking to him,” she said. “But it was bothersome the cloaks and daggers where people aren’t disclosing their names. Who are they?”
Dan Lavey, a consultant for People for Portland, said, as far as campaign leaders know, her participation is “pure coincidence” and, though DiLorenzo did share the report with them, they had nothing to do with it.
In an interview, DiLorenzo said he has “no real connection” with the People for Portland campaign, but knows many of the people involved. He considered asking People for Portland to send out the dossier.
“The report changed the entire way I thought about these camps,” he said. “And I think it would be useful for the public to know that these aren’t always clusters of people seeking shelter from the elements.”
Ultimately, he decided against it. The camp, after all, was already gone.