At a briefing Tuesday in Portland, the FBI discussed at length the role of Oregon’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, a partnership between local and federal law enforcement agencies.
Senior federal law enforcement officials are anticipating a fight with Portland City Hall as early as next month when Commissioner-elect Jo Ann Hardesty is sworn into the City Council.
Hardesty has said her first act in office will be to push for a vote to remove Portland from the law enforcement partnership.
Seven local law enforcement agencies work as a part of the JTTF. Two Portland Police Bureau officers work out of the FBI on a part-time basis on threats of violence to the city.
On Tuesday, FBI Special Agent In Charge Renn Cannon said the city and the state as a whole are safer with Portland as part of the JTTF. He said the officers on the JTTF serve as a conduit between the FBI and their local departments.
That would change if Portland votes to pull out.
“Real-time communication would be definitely slowed down,” Cannon said in an interview with OPB. “It wouldn’t stop completely. We don’t necessarily have to have somebody on the JTTF to be able to get information to them, but it takes longer to do that. And in a fast moving threat situation, those hours or days can make a real difference.”
Cannon said local agencies get access to intelligence from the federal government about threats to their community. In turn, the FBI gets access to mental health services and local knowledge and intelligence.
So far this year, the JTTF has investigated more than 270 threats in Oregon — often based on tips from community members. Cannon said most threats “wash out” and only a small fraction become investigations, and an even smaller number lead to arrests by the JTTF.
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the task force was focused on international terrorism. Even now, international terrorism remains the Oregon JTTF’s priority, according to Cannon. But the law enforcement partnership has also shifted, increasingly investigating threats of violence.
“Not everything we investigate becomes a terrorism investigation or is terrorism-related,” FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge George Chamberlin said in an interview. “If we find out that there is no terrorism nexus, (a case) may be passed to a criminal squad at that point. But the JTTF is uniquely situated to be that initial response to some of these threat issues.”
Among the more unusual cases the Oregon JTTF say it has worked on: it led the investigation into a person who was using a laser pointer to distract airline pilots at the Portland International Airport. The FBI takes the lead on school shootings and threats, as well. The JTTF was also involved in the MAX stabbing case in 2017 but handed that case off to the FBI’s Civil Rights Division.
Immigration is a critical question surrounding Portland’s participation on the JTTF, in part because the city has declared itself a sanctuary city for immigrants.
The FBI said arresting people for immigration violations is not a priority for the agency unless there’s a criminal or national security threat. Furthermore, Cannon said the Portland police officers deputized on the JTTF do not work cases that have any immigration component.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has made it clear to the FBI that Portland Police are not to be used for any immigration type case, Cannon said. He said the mayor brings it up during each quarterly briefing between the city, FBI and Oregon’s U.S. Attorney’s Office.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement describes itself as the largest federal contributor to JTTFs across the country. However, Cannon stressed it includes members of the Homeland Security Investigation team and not ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations side.
“HSI’s mission is to look at crimes and threats of violence across international borders,” Cannon said. “HSI has significant overlap and capabilities at the federal level that are similar to those of the FBI. They work on the Oregon JTTF … but their primary mission is things like counterfeit goods, international human trafficking, international crimes of violence, drug trafficking.”
Cannon said it’s very rare for the JTTF to make an immigration-related arrest in Oregon.
“If somebody asks me, can you guarantee the JTTF will never be involved in an immigration arrest, no I can’t guarantee that,” he told OPB. “What I can tell you is it’s exceedingly rare here in Oregon. And what I can also say is I can guarantee that the Portland Police on the JTTF are not involved in immigration enforcement.”
The FBI uses immigration in the context of terrorism, Cannon said.
He said immigration statutes, along with drug charges or fraud, can be used to mitigate a threat of violence in a way that doesn’t interfere with an investigation.