Portland could be the next major city to withdraw its police from a key partnership with federal law enforcement agencies that investigates terrorism and domestic extremism.
Mayor Ted Wheeler held talks with the FBI this month to discuss how to handle the city’s withdrawal from the Joint Terrorism Task Force, public records released by the mayor’s office show.
The reason: the election of City Council member Jo Ann Hardesty, a civil rights activist who has promised that her first act in office next year will be pulling Portland out of the JTTF. She says the coalition's work conflicts with Portland's status as a sanctuary city for immigrants.
Records show that Renn Cannon, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Portland division, arranged to meet with the mayor and his staff Nov. 8, two days after the election, to discuss the fate of the JTTF.
“SAC Cannon would like the next meeting to take place after election day,” wrote Nicole Grant, a senior advisor to the mayor who works on police issues, in an email scheduling the meeting. “The PPB status on the JTTF could change depending upon who wins.”
In addition to federal law enforcement agencies, the local terrorism task force includes representatives from the Oregon State Police, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office and the Port of Portland Police Department.
Hardesty’s election means that once she takes office, a majority of Portland’s council members may support a vote to withdraw. Commissioner Amanda Fritz has voted against JTTF participation twice in the past, and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly has raised concerns about the partnership.
Wheeler, who oversees the Police Bureau under Portland's unique commission form of government, wants to remain in the partnership.
"The mayor’s position has been consistent: that he would only withdraw if given a compelling reason to withdraw," said Eileen Park, his spokesperson.
In addition to meeting with the mayor, the FBI also made plans to lobby members of the City Council in the coming months, the records obtained by OPB through a public information request show.
Staff for Commissioner Nick Fish say the FBI has set a meeting with him in mid-December, though they weren’t sure what issues agency officials want to discuss.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz is meeting with Cannon in January, but her chief of staff said that he believes the meeting is for the commissioner to receive a non-classified annual briefing on the FBI’s activities in Portland.
Commissioner-Elect Hardesty is out of the country on vacation. Staff on her transition team said the FBI and the mayor’s office had not reached out to them or to the Hardesty campaign to discuss the JTTF. The FBI told OPB it was "in the process" of offering briefings to commissioners, including Hardesty.
The mayor currently receives quarterly briefings from Cannon on the JTTF’s work.
When asked about those future meetings with city leaders, FBI spokeswoman Beth Anne Steele declined to give specific details.
In their Nov. 8 meeting, the mayor and Cannon discussed what the terms of a withdrawal from the JTTF might be and how to keep communications between the FBI and the police bureau open if the city does leave the partnership.
In written notes from the meeting, which were redacted before OPB received them, the mayor's aides detail concerns that ending the partnership will mean Portland police officers will lose access to federal intelligence.
“Would lose ability of PPB officers to be privy to sensitive information, have access to their systems, and immediately collaborate,” Grant wrote.
The meeting materials provide a rare, albeit limited, window into the task force’s relatively secretive work, including details about what information Portland officers share with their federal partners.
Grant’s notes state that the task force “handles both international and domestic threats, including white supremacists … any domestic group that is advocating violence.”
Wheeler and the Police Bureau have struggled with how to handle a series of violent political protests spurred by extreme right-wing organizations.
The records also suggest that the JTTF has been involved on at least one recent occasion in investigating threats to the mayor.
In November, an FBI agent and a PPB officer asked to interview Wheeler about a threat he’d received on Instagram, apparently including a reference to a Molotov cocktail.
Detailing the risks of withdrawal, Grant wrote that the FBI relies on PPB for information about people suffering from mental illnesses who may be of interest to federal investigators:
“FBI doesn’t have on the ground mental health assessments. That resides w/in PPB,” Grant wrote.
The FBI said working with the Portland Police Bureau makes it easier for the agency to divert people under investigation to social services.
"For instance, many threat assessments can be resolved by providing people access to mental health resources as opposed to prosecution," Steele wrote in an email to OPB.
The FBI has said that the task forces, which exist in 104 cities nationwide, are a key strategy for identifying and thwarting terrorists. Their list of successes includes the case of six Portland residents arrested in 2002 after they tried unsuccessfully to join the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The FBI said the local JTTF addresses "approximately 200 threats a year."
Opposition to the JTTF runs deep in Portland. Mayor Tom Potter, a former Portland police chief, voted to remove the city's officers from the task force in 2005 out of concern that it lacked adequate civilian oversight. The city rejoined under Mayor Sam Adams in 2010 on an "as-needed basis" after the FBI announced it had arrested a teenager for plotting to bomb Pioneer Courthouse Square. The council then voted to fully rejoin in 2015.
Civil rights groups, immigrant-rights groups and some advocates for the Muslim-American community have all repeatedly lobbied against Portland’s participation.
Prior to the November election, three members of the City Council supported staying in the task force. But Commissioner Dan Saltzman opted to retire rather than seek re-election this year, and Hardesty won his seat.
Now, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly could be the key swing vote if Hardesty moves to withdraw the city from the JTTF.
Eudaly has not taken a position on whether the city should continue in the task force, but she is an outspoken critic of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the federal agencies involved in the JTTF.
“She has been most concerned about ICE’s participation in JTTF,” said Marshall Runkel, Eudaly’s chief of staff.
However, Eudaly’s staff say they are also in conversation with some members of the Muslim community in Portland who believe the city should remain in the task force.
Eudaly has met previously with the FBI to discuss their work, including the JTTF, but her staff say the agency hasn’t scheduled any future meetings with her.
San Francisco is currently the only major American city that does not participate in the JTTF.
Listen to OPB reporter Amelia Templeton discuss Portland's possible exit from the JTTF with "All Things Considered" host Kate Davidson in the audio player below.