A year since withdrawing from the region’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, City Hall appears pleased with the new relationship forming between the PPB and the FBI, in which the lines of communication remain open, albeit significantly confined.
On Wednesday, Police Chief Jami Resch and Sgt. Pete Simpson fielded questions from the City Council on the nature of this new relationship as they presented an annual report recapping interactions between the bureau and the task force.
It was the first accounting of the city's relationship with the FBI-led task force since council members voted to leave in February 2019. The move was championed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who feared the city did not have enough oversight of the FBI's work to prevent officers from potentially violating Portlanders' civil rights.
Despite the end of Portland’s involvement in the JTTF, the task force can still ask for assistance from the police bureau. For example, Portland can temporarily provide PPB officers to assist with an investigation spearheaded by the task force. The task force can also refer cases to the Portland Police and visa versa, if one agency feels the other has better resources on the ground to handle the investigation.
According to a PPB report, this exchange of cases happened just under two dozen times in 2019. The Portland Police passed 12 cases on to the FBI, and the FBI gave PPB 10 cases.
The last time this report was generated, in 2019, it showed that Portland Police officers working with the task force had looked into 29 incidents.
This year’s report provided only a brief overview of the cases moving from the PPB to the FBI. They included investigations into individuals threatening to bomb places of worship, racially motivated extremism and threats to public officials.
The report also included more details on cases the FBI handed over to the bureau. Three of the subjects were affiliated with “a racially motivated violent extremist group.” Three involved violent threats made on social media. One person had threatened the Portland Police and another the British royal family.
Nine of the 10 reported cases had been closed; the bureau found the allegations didn’t amount to a crime. Of the nine, all of the people being investigated were white, and all but one was male.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Hardesty said she was pleased with the bureau’s transparency and that she intends to make sure “our participation with the joint terrorism task force is extremely limited.”
She also questioned the chief on what the new process was to determine whether the FBI and PPB exchanged cases. One example she gave: PPB would hand over a case if they found evidence of a potential terrorist attack.
“We would look at it and we would take that investigation to the end of our limits, and realize maybe this doesn’t have anything city or state related but it could have a possible federal nexus,” Resch said. “I would be notified by Pete [Simpson], and I would contact a member of the FBI and forward that information to them.”
And if the task force wanted a Portland officer to help with an investigation?
“Then they would have to call me,” the chief said. "I would have to be briefed on it, and I would have to make that decision.”
Simpson told the Council that Resch would be closely monitoring all cases in which the task force played a role.
“Moving forward, Chief Resch has indicated she will take an active role in this process and regularly meeting with the criminal intelligence unit to review and discuss any information going to and from the FBI,” Simpson said. “That is an added layer of oversight we are going to do this next year.”
Dan Handelman, an outspoken critic of the task force and head of Portland Copwatch, a group that advocates for more police transparency and civilian oversight, staged a protest earlier in the week outside City Hall over the continuing relationship between the FBI and PPB. He was joined by groups including 350 PDX, League of Women Voters of Portland, Portland Democratic Socialists of America and Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland.
After leaving the council session, he said he remained concerned about when exactly the Portland Police had the green light to work with the task force.
He said the lack of details included in the report made it difficult for a reader to determine if the subjects represented “an actual terrorist threat.”
He added he was particularly concerned about the incidents included in the report about individuals associated “with a racially motivated violent extremist group,” as he felt that simply being associated with an extremist group, such as a white supremacist group, was not sufficient for task force involvement and could start police down a slippery slope.