Think Out Loud

Multnomah County DA Mike Schmidt makes case for reelection

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
April 26, 2024 3:45 p.m. Updated: April 26, 2024 8:21 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, April 26

District Attorney Mike Schmidt speaking at a podium while a small crowd of political leaders stand behind him.

FILE - Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt speaks at a press conference at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Dec. 14, 2022. Schmidt is running for reelection against one of the top attorneys in his office, Nathan Vasquez.

April Ehrlich / OPB


Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt is facing a challenge from one of his own senior deputy attorneys, Nathan Vasquez. Schmidt came into office as a reformer, with the goal of ending mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. We talk to Schmidt about his tenure, and his case for why he deserves to be reelected. We talk to Vasquez on Monday, April 29.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt came into office about four years ago as a reformer with the goal of addressing mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Then came massive protests and COVID shutdowns and drug decriminalization and a public defender crisis. Now, he’s facing a re-election challenge from one of his own senior deputy district attorneys, Nathan Vasquez. We’ll talk to Nathan Nathan Vasquez on Monday. Mike Schmidt joins us today to talk about why he thinks Multnomah County voters should give him another four years as a top law enforcement official in Oregon’s largest county. Welcome back to the show.

Mike Schmidt: Hey. Thanks, Dave.

Miller: I’m going to start with crime rates. Violent crime spiked to record levels in the last couple of years while you were at the top law enforcement official in the county. This was a nationwide phenomenon, but that’s not really comforting to Multnomah County residents and in fact, homicides, the rate of increase was higher in Portland than many other cities. Do you think that you bear any responsibility for the rise in crime rates as DA?

Schmidt: I think district attorneys are part of our criminal justice system and there are things that we can do, but you can look historically through the decades at crime rates rising and falling and while we can play a role, there’s so many other environmental factors that influence these things. Obviously, a pandemic had a massive disruption across our country, but there are other local decisions. The amount of guns on your streets and how accessible they are, those can help fuel especially violent crime. So there are local policy decisions. And then as a district attorney, it’s my job to enforce the laws and when people are arrested, to prosecute them.

Miller: If you don’t bear responsibility for the rise in crime, should you take any credit for drops in crime?

Schmidt: Yeah. I mean…

Miller: I say that because it’s an issue you have brought up, that you’ve said things like there’s been a decrease in car thefts. And the implication seems to be, “give me credit for that.” But should you do that if you refuse to take blame for the earlier rise?

Schmidt: So again, there’s all the environmental factors. What I can do is be responsive. And so for example, take car thefts. Car thefts increased throughout the pandemic like other places. But also we saw Kias and Hondas become incredibly easy to steal because of manufacturing defects. So now, car theft rates are decreasing. There have been recalls of the Kias and Hondas that clearly plays into why they’re going back down, but also we formed an auto theft task force. And the Portland Police Department actually has done some incredibly innovative work with OHSU partnering with a cancer doctor who does research to form an algorithm and they become way more efficient.

So there’s never one thing or one reason. I think the role that I have played in getting a task force put together has been a contributing factor to helping decrease those crime rates.

Miller: You mentioned prosecution rates or taking on cases that are referred to from police. You’ve argued that prosecution rates increase every year you’ve been in office and they have increased slightly overall from your predecessor, but the total number of cases charged is way down, like a third lower than something like seven or eight years ago. And that’s because, it seems, police are sending many fewer cases to your office. I’ve seen various reasons for that, from Measure 110 not leading to possession cases to various changes in police priorities. I’ve also seen another reason put forward that police think you’re soft on crime so there’s less of a reason to just bring cases to your office.

What role if any do you think the DA plays in terms of the raw number of cases that arrive on your doorstep?

Schmidt: Well, I think the police have their job to do, right? And they are a different part of the system for a reason. We are separate agencies and we each have our rules. So they need to do their work to get me and my prosecutors the cases that we need. And you can see by the day that it’s not borne out that we’re not prosecuting the cases. So that’s clearly misinformation that has been in this campaign and otherwise.

You can look at specific reasons and where we see the biggest decrease has been in misdemeanors. Felonies have been more or less consistent but you saw decreases in misdemeanors. And when we dug into the data, we saw that Measure 110, obviously, there were no more misdemeanors when we decriminalized possession of drugs so that decreased the number of cases. Shoplifting cases – massively reduced arrests of shoplifting cases sent to our office. When I asked the chief about that, he cited the policies of a lot of local stores that are no longer having their security officers detain people in the store. So big corporate chains especially are making policy changes about liability and for other reasons. And that changed the number of people detained for police to arrest, so we saw a lot less of those. And then the third was traffic-related crimes, especially DUIs, went massively down and I think that’s directly related to the Portland Police deactivating their traffic unit, which is now back online and we’re seeing those cases go back up.

Across the board on all three of those examples – well decriminalization, of course, is now changed. As of September 1st, we’ll start to see those cases. We’ve seen theft case referrals go up and we’re training loss prevention officers across Multnomah County and what we need to make those cases. And the same now that the traffic units are back. So you’re seeing the misdemeanors come back. So again, if it was because of my charging practices or otherwise, you wouldn’t expect to see that increase.

Miller: But do you think whether we’re talking about a bully pulpit or something else that it is the district attorney’s appropriate role to actually encourage the police to change arresting practices? I mean, do you think that you should have some kind of a voice in what kinds of cases come to you in the first place?

Schmidt: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s why we’re in an election right now, right? I am elected by this community to lead the prosecutor’s office and when I ran the first time, the community spoke incredibly loudly, 77% of the vote, that favored me, about what the priorities of the prosecuting office should be. So, yeah, I do think I have a role in enforcing the law because…

Miller: But that still, that strikes me as the prosecutorial discretion and priorities that still arguably is largely about what happens when the cases come to you. I’m asking if we think about the criminal justice ecosystem more broadly, if you think you have a role in what cases come to you in the first place, or if you’re saying that’s purely up to the police, they give stuff to us and then we take it from there?

Schmidt: I think it is more collaborative than that. For example, talking about retail theft. And so again, we’ve put together this task force, we’re working with the State Attorney General. We strengthened the law, we went down to Salem, we got the law changed. So it’s stronger and now we’re coming back and we’ve actually gotten grants for local police agencies so that they can pay the overtime cost of doing retail missions. So there’s an example of both my office and the state legislature working with police officers to prioritize an area where we see a big need.

So, yeah, I think sometimes it’s collaborative on what are the most major challenges facing our community. And over this pandemic, it started gun violence, obviously. Catalytic converter theft, that was a big one. We’re not seeing that as much anymore. In fact, I think it’s down almost 90% but then auto theft and retail theft. So we prioritize where we think the biggest needs and what we’re hearing from community members are.

Miller: We talked briefly about Measure 110, but let’s turn to that squarely right now. You supported Measure 110 – the drug decriminalization statewide measure – when it was on the ballot, along with a big majority of Oregonians. Your challenger, Nathan Vasquez, has pointed out that he actually recognized ahead of time that it was going to be a policy failure. And he argues that we could see this as a failure of your judgment to not recognize that in advance. Do you think he’s right at all?

Schmidt: No. I mean, I think he’s out of step with Multnomah County voters, then and now. I mean, 75% of Multnomah County voters passed Measure 110. The state numbers were lower than that, but Multnomah County was overwhelming and I think that’s because people recognize that addiction is a health issue and it needs a health solution. Too many of us have had family members that have been impacted by addiction. And I think what the community said very loudly was we want to see something different than just arresting people and locking them up.

Now, fast forward, nobody predicted fentanyl hitting our streets when it did. And of course, the pandemic also was not part of the conversation when we were talking about Measure 110. So those two things were kind of outside factors that came in at the same time that I think really challenged the implementation of Measure 110.

Miller: But shouldn’t we have, collectively, recognized that fentanyl was going to hit? It had hit the East Coast before. I think that the reason I bring this up is his particular criticism here–and again, I should say that we’ll talk to him on Monday– is that it sort of sets aside the question of being in line with Multnomah County voters. I think his point is that the fact that he is now in line with where a majority of voters are and that he would argue “got this right,” that this was a policy mistake in execution. He says he saw that ahead of time and you didn’t. You’re saying “I was with voters then.” So would you in retrospect have voted for Measure 110?

Schmidt: Not knowing the pandemic and the fentanyl thing, I don’t think I would have changed my vote because it’s still… And what we’ve seen…


Miller: You mean, even now knowing what you know, you would still approve Measure 110?

Schmidt: Now we know that the implementation failed. So, no, if I would have known all those factors were going to come and the implementation wasn’t going to work, I couldn’t have supported it then. But I’ll tell you, Measure 110 has still changed the game in remarkable ways. The fact that he’s still against that, I think, is pretty telling because it has introduced hundreds of millions of dollars into our community for treatment. That’s all still in place. In fact, [HB] 4002, although we went back on criminalization to some degree, that is also a much different regime than what we had before Measure 110.

Miller: So let’s turn to the [HB] 4002. This is what the legislature just passed with the governor signed which re-criminalizes and turns simple possession into a new version of a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail. Then there’s diversion which we can get to. Practically speaking, when it comes to possession cases going forward, how different is the new system going to be in Multnomah County than what it was like pre-Measure 110?

Schmidt: Completely different, completely different. I mean, first of all, there’s a huge emphasis on what we’re calling deflection and deflection is when an officer comes into contact with you and you’re possessing a controlled substance, they say, look, you’re not allowed to do that, that’s against the law. And I can take you to jail, I can arrest you for that. But I’m also able to offer you a deflection or take you to some other resource, a drop site, for example. And if the person says, yeah, I’d rather do that, then there’s no arrest made, there’s no prosecution ever commencing because we’ve made a connection to treatment. That was not the way it was pre-Measure 110.

Miller: But we’re always talking about prosecutorial discretion and priorities, about deciding how you’re going to deploy limited resources and which cases are worth pursuing. And that I think appropriately and traditionally means more of an emphasis on more serious crimes. So how serious do you take a simple possession case? Let’s say a year from now if you’re re-elected when there are so many other, say, violent crimes to worry about, are your prosecutors going to be spending significant time worrying about possession?

Schmidt: Well, I take it seriously because I think what we’ve seen from the Measure 110 implementation is we’ve seen people using drugs openly in our streets, and that’s just clearly unacceptable. The open drug use has to stop.

Miller: And that’s another aspect that lawmakers didn’t see coming when voters approved Measure 110.

Schmidt: Correct.

Miller: And that was in some ways, I think of that as a separate fix, but you’re saying that they’re related. So you’re saying that your office will take public use seriously?

Schmidt: Yeah, I mean, we will follow the law so possession too. But public use I think is really what I’ve been hearing from voters, the thing that really drove them to the place of saying, “hey, this has to change.” So we will do the prosecution.

What’s great about House Bill 4002, which I was very much in the process with the legislators and helping craft this, was that not only do we have the deflection on the front end. The next step is if deflection fails, we have something called conditional discharge built into the law. You’ll be charged with the crime, but if you participate in treatment at that point, we can still dismiss and drop the charges. And we worked with immigration attorneys to make sure that we were doing that in a way that wouldn’t have negative immigration consequences.

And then even if that fails, you’ll get a traditional probation officer who will oversee your treatment, things like that. We built automatic expungement into the law, first time ever in Oregon’s history. Three years after your conviction, it will be automatically expunged. And one of the big things about the prior regime of drug criminalization was the disparate consequences it has had, especially hard on minority communities. And those records that stay with you and end up exacerbating future criminal conduct or contact with the system. So that automatic expungement is also a game changer. So this is a much different regime than the way it was.

Miller: Your challenger, Nathan Vasquez, has pointed out that he has vastly more experience as a prosecutor than you do. You have countered that pointing that out on his part reflects a misunderstanding of what it is that a district attorney does. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but your argument is that you’re a leader of this office as opposed to a line prosecutor.

But to be an effective manager, I think of any kind of team, I imagine it can be very helpful to truly have a sense for the work that your team members are doing, the people under you are doing, and perhaps to have done it yourself. There are a few ways to really understand how something works and to have done it yourself. Do you disagree with that premise?

Schmidt: No, I think my five years of prosecutorial experience in trying both felonies and misdemeanors and doing civil commitments gives me the understanding of how that part of the office works, but that’s one part of the office.

Miller: And if you had say almost 20 years more of that experience, do you think that that would help you be a better manager and better leader of the office? That is Nathan Vasquez’s argument that because he has something like two decades more experience as a prosecutor doing very high profile cases–murders, other serious crimes–that he has a better handle on managing the office, or he would. What’s your response to that particular point?

Schmidt: Well, so Nathan has zero experience managing anything. He’s never been a manager which is talking about HR which is talking about budget. I have 10 years of running executive experience. I ran the Criminal Justice Commission for six years before I became the elected DA.

Miller: That’s the elected state criminal justice think tank.

Schmidt: Exactly. And so I ran that state agency. So I’ve been through that process and now I run this agency which is a 260-person agency with two different major unions inside of it. And so it’s just a completely different job and role and ball game. I understand how to try a case. I understand what goes into that, but I also have to understand, what do victim advocates go through? What do investigators go through? What do subpoena clerks go through? There are so many aspects of the agency. And so the fact that he’s done one part of the agency for 20-some years doesn’t necessarily make him competent to run a state agency with no managerial experience.

Miller: What’s an example of how you think you would be better at this job in a second term than you have been in your first?

Schmidt: Like any job, there’s a steep learning curve. And as you can imagine, this job is probably one of the toughest jobs in the state and especially over these past four years, probably one of if not the toughest law enforcement role in the state of Oregon. So I’ve learned a lot over these four years. Part of that is just getting to know people, building trust, building relationships. So much is dependent on the Multnomah County District Attorney being able to build coalitions, getting the city of Portland, the county, the state, the federal level to work together to invest in our office. We’ve grown the office by $15 million since I’ve started and to put that in perspective, we hadn’t grown $15 million in the last like 15 years. We’ve added almost 25 new prosecutors. So we’ve been growing the office and the way that you’re able to do that is through relationships and community support of which I have a lot of community support. You need the community to be behind you to help you build these initiatives. So that’s a crucial distinction.

Miller: We have about a minute left for your answer for this. So you did internal polls at your office of staff in 2023 and again this year. And there are some troubling results as reported by Willamette Week. You didn’t seem to make much progress in that time. According to the new survey, “Confidence in reporting discriminatory behavior or feeling unsafe has decreased” and “Workloads are having a greater negative impact on mental health.” How do you explain that lack of an increase despite trying to make working conditions better, according to your own staff’s responses?

Schmidt: Yeah. Well, so Dave, the only reason you even have those numbers is because I was willing to ask those questions. Never in the history of the Multnomah DA’s office have we done this type of surveying of our staff.

Miller: You can get credit for having the bravery then to ask those questions, but you still have to respond to the responses.

Schmidt: Yeah. No, absolutely. And this gave us a road map of like, OK, here’s our deficiencies, here’s what employees are feeling these ways. And so how are we going to attack that? We’ve got an equity director. I’ve put an equity assistant into this next budget. They’re going to work on exactly these issues. We’ve implemented different trainings. And so part of that pulse survey, which was the follow up survey was to see, hey, we’ve done a bunch of training, has that moved the needle? And we saw in some areas, yes, some areas, no. And so that’s what we have to do. We have to keep trying new interventions, seeing how we can make progress and then keep measuring.

Miller: Mike Schmidt, thanks very much.

Schmidt: Thanks, Dave.

Miller: Mike Schmidt is running for reelection as Multnomah County District Attorney.

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