Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill announced Tuesday he will step down as the county’s top prosecutor on July 31.
The move paves the way for Mike Schmidt, who was elected to the seat last month as a progressive candidate, to take over well ahead of his January 2021 start date.
In a letter to staff, Underhill referenced the nationwide protests in response to police violence toward Black communities.
“We are in the midst of what I hope and believe will be monumental and lasting societal change,” Underhill wrote. “And while I welcome that challenge and that change, I must be honest with myself and with you. My term expires in six months; it would be shortsighted of me and unfair to the office and our community to spend my remaining time advocating for and enacting that strategic vision, and then looking to DA-Elect Schmidt to begin that process anew, and potentially differently, in January.”
Underhill declined an interview request.
In his letter, Underhill said he called Gov. Kate Brown and encouraged her to appoint Schmidt to the remainder of his term starting Aug. 1.
Underhill told staff he informed Schmidt of his decision to retire early Monday — a move that took Schmidt by surprise.
“This weekend I was having coffee with my wife and my family and I thought, I have six months to figure this out,” Schmidt told OPB. “Then come Monday morning I find out I have six weeks. So you know, I’m excited to get started on the work. Also, to be honest, a little intimidated, a little anxious.”
Last year, Underhill announced he wouldn’t seek reelection after holding the seat since 2013. While many expressed interest, the race came down to Ethan Knight, a federal prosecutor, and Schmidt, who won with more than 76% of the vote.
Schmidt’s election signaled a progressive shift in the state’s criminal justice system. In addition to his victory, voters elected a criminal defense attorney in Wasco County over the long-serving DA there, and voters in Jackson County declined plans to build a new, larger jail.
Schmidt has said he favors a data-driven approach to criminal justice. He also favors repealing voter-approved mandatory minimum sentences, hiring a more diverse workforce and eliminating cash bail.
So sudden is Underhill’s departure that Schmidt hasn’t quit his other job as executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency that researches and tracks the criminal justice system. He plans to resign from that before taking over in Multnomah County.
Schmidt said he wants to rethink how prosecutors do their job.
“I prosecuted in that office from 2007 to 2013, and we never used data,” Schmidt told OPB before the election. “You really can’t say that you want to improve criminal justice outcomes if you have no idea what the current outcomes you’re getting are.”
Schmidt will take over the office amid renewed scrutiny of the criminal justice system and its disproportionate impact on communities of color. Nightly protests in Portland over police violence have placed pressure on political leaders to make significant changes, including installing a new chief at the Portland Police Bureau and making cuts to the force’s budget.
Those protests began in late May after the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who died after a police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as a handcuffed Floyd shouted: “I can’t breathe.”
A report last year found the overall rate of people of color in Multnomah County’s criminal justice system decreased during the last five years. But it also found the rate of people of color in jail increased for all groups, except Native Americans.
Schmidt will also face decisions about whether to retry or dismiss charges in a host of non-unanimous jury rulings that are being returned to local district attorney’s offices after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed Oregon’s split jury conviction practice unconstitutional in April.
Finally, Schmidt will face the unknown challenges of running an essential office amid a global pandemic. Not only will that present the continued challenges of keeping his staff safe amid a rising death toll, but its economic fallout could at least temporarily delay some of his priorities.
“In a lot of ways, it’s different than what I thought it was going to be, what challenges I was going to face,” Schmidt said, “but at the same time, a lot of the themes I talked about in the campaign are actually going to be incredibly helpful right now in this moment.”
Schmidt mentioned reducing the incarcerated population, addressing racial disparities in the criminal justice system and holding police officers accountable as a few of the areas he would focus on as district attorney.