In his first public remarks following a horrifically violent holiday weekend, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler denied accusations that comments he made last year encouraged vigilantism against political demonstrators. And he suggested he’s historically been the sole member of the City Council to recognize that gun violence in the city requires a stronger police response.
The mayor spoke to reporters Tuesday about a deadly weekend of gun violence in Portland that included a police killing, a drive-by shooting that killed one woman and injured her small children and a man opening fire into a crowd of racial justice demonstrators.
The shooting at a protest at Northeast Portland’s Normandale Park left one person killed and five injured, including the person accused of the attack. Police have identified the suspect as Benjamin Smith, 43, a resident of a nearby apartment complex. Smith’s roommate of seven years said Smith had grown upset about the regular protests in the area and the people experiencing homelessness who camped nearby.
The mayor, looking unusually tired and at one point appearing to choke up, said he had been working 24/7 over the “deadly, difficult, and disturbing weekend” and was determined to bring those responsible to justice.
In the aftermath of the Normandale Park shooting, some on the left suggested Wheeler carried partial blame for the political violence. Wheeler had previously asked Portlanders to take action against the small portion of protesters who have, as part of larger demonstrations for racial justice, clad themselves in black and vandalized businesses. Wheeler said last April he wanted to “unmask” those destroying property and believed it was time to “hurt them a little bit.”
That call was rebuked at the time by civil rights groups, as well as by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who warned the remarks could be interpreted as encouraging vigilantism.
When Wheeler does his presser I hope someone reads all of these out loud and asks if he wants to apologize for creating an environment where it was okay to demonize and attack people for practicing their constitutional rights. https://t.co/vJwSmz1e4t— Zakir Khan (@ZakirSpeaks) February 22, 2022
Wheeler said Tuesday he does not regret what he said and that it should have been clear that he was not advocating physical violence but rather holding protesters accountable.
“People can be hurt in many ways,” he said. “It was crystal clear from the context of my statement that I was not referring to or advocating violence.
“If I regret anything it’s that I used a statement that could be used out of context for political gain.”
Law enforcement officials said Tuesday they were taking steps to combat gun violence in the city. The acting U.S. attorney in Oregon, the FBI’s special agent in charge and Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt emphasized they were working together and prosecuting an unprecedented number of gun crimes. Wheeler highlighted the enhanced community safety team — a group of officers who provide quick response to shootings — as well as the new police-focused intervention team, a dedicated police unit tasked with stopping cycles of retaliatory violence.
Wheeler said that while he believed city leaders are now united on the need to do more to stop gun violence, he felt he had previously acted alone in pushing for these police initiatives.
“I want to remind people that some of the investments we took as an administration, we did so against opposition — opposition from some of my own colleagues on the Portland City Council, opposition from people in the community, opposition from press,” the mayor said. “We’re going to continue to make further investments, and again they’re going to be controversial. People will fight me tooth and nail as I try to invest in resources to improve public safety.”
With three fatal shootings, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell called this President’s Day weekend “one of the most deadly and challenging weekends our city has experienced.”
Protesters in attendance on Saturday night said Smith shouted at a group of people who were beginning a “Justice for Amir Locke” demonstration. Locke was a Black man killed earlier this month by Minneapolis police serving a no-knock warrant.
Witnesses said they were attempting to calm Smith when he began shooting, killing Brandy “June” Knightly, 60, and injuring four others. A protester allegedly returned fire, hitting Smith. Police said Tuesday Smith was hospitalized and in serious condition. Lovell would not say whether it was a protester who shot Smith.
In the three days since the protest attack, Portland Police have been characteristically slow to release information about the mass shooting. Details about the attacker and victims have trickled out slowly from the bureau, typically after it was reported by the media. In at least one instance, the information provided by the police appeared to be incorrect.
Wheeler defended the pace and said his administration, which oversees the police bureau, was doing the best it could to balance providing information in a timely manner and ensuring that information was correct.
“I’d rather we be accurate and provide good solid information with the benefit of collaboration with our law enforcement partners rather than winging it,” he said.
Police originally said the protest shooter was a “homeowner,” though OPB could not find records of Smith owning his apartment. Lovell said Tuesday he was not sure how the term “homeowner” entered the discourse, a word choice some progressive activists say props up a narrative of a homeowner lawfully defending their property. (OPB, like other media outlets, incorrectly used the term in a photo caption that has since been updated.)
“I don’t know especially where that information has come from,” Lovell said. “It was nothing intentional on the part of the bureau.”