Right-wing Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys and counter-protesters shout at one another from across a street in Downtown Portland.

Right-wing Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys and counter-protesters shout at one another from across a street in Downtown Portland.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra/OPB

Portland leaders have hired the National Police Foundation to investigate whether there is a bias in how the Portland Police Bureau handles political protesters.

In February, Mayor Ted Wheeler agreed to an independent investigation following reports about text messages between Joey Gibson, the leader of the group Patriot Prayer – a Vancouver-based far-right group that attracts white supremacists and has engaged in violence – and Lt. Jeff Niiya, who headed up the Police Bureau’s Rapid Response Team.

Portland police Lt. Jeff Niiya, right, with the police bureau's rapid response team at a protest in downtown Portland, Ore., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018., 2018.

Portland police Lt. Jeff Niiya, right, with the police bureau’s rapid response team at a protest in downtown Portland, Ore., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018., 2018.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Gibson has organized protests in Portland that brought white supremacists to the city. Some of those events turned violent as members of Patriot Prayer clashed with anti-fascist protesters.

Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury broke news about text messages between Gibson and Niiya that appeared cordial and even friendly, as though Niiya was looking out for Gibson’s well being.

Ahead of a listening session in February, the city released one of Niiya’s police reports from a June 4, 2017 protest. In the report, Niiya said he was trying to avoid a violent conflict and talk to people on all sides of the demonstration.

“I felt the possibility of a serious assault or injury was to be expected,” he wrote. “My outreach and recommendations to the Bureau were to minimize this possibility while allowing all participants to exercise their rights safely. I believe the cooperation we received from everyone involved assisted in not having major confrontations between the protesters.”

The Portland Police Association, the officers’ union, said Niiya was only doing his job.

After the text messages became public, Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly expressed concerns about bias and said the messages went too far.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty listens to testimony over a proposed ordinance on April 4, 2019.

Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty listens to testimony over a proposed ordinance on April 4, 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski/OPB

“I’ve never seen that kind of communication with other protesters certainly not with Black Lives (Matter) protesters, or when people are protesting against police violence,” Hardesty said in February.

Niiya is under investigation and has stepped away from his role running the bureau’s Rapid Response Team, which frequently responds to street protests.

The Foundation’s website says it helps “police be more effective in doing their job” and works “to improve relationships between the police and the communities they serve.”

The work is expected to begin this week and will cost the city $200,000.

The mayor’s office said the rest of the City Council was consulted before the decision was made, and no one expressed concerns.

OPB reporter Amelia Templeton contributed reporting.