One year ago, Portland city councilors met to discuss funding for the police bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team.
The meeting produced a notable amount of drama, including a testy exchange between Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland's first Black female commissioner, Jo Ann Hardesty.
The 2019 back-and-forth involved Hardesty chastising Wheeler for taking potshots and the mayor asking her to stop interrupting so he could apologize.
Many expected Hardesty — a longtime champion for more police accountability measures — and Wheeler to butt heads. And they did.
With massive protests persisting in Portland following the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd by police, police accountability is once again the leading topic among Wheeler’s critics.
Last week, the mayor — dressed in jeans and a black Portland Parks and Recreation hoodie — joined a crowd of protesters. Demonstrators were furious over Wheeler's refusal to ban tear gas, which police have routinely used to disperse protesters.
They took turns on the bullhorn yelling at the mayor to his face.
“It’s not too late to resign, Ted,” activist Danialle James said.
The predominantly young crowd took an informal survey: How many wanted the mayor to step down? Hands shot up. Since last week, more than 12,000 people have signed a petition to call on him to step down. And despite being in the middle of a campaign seeking reelection, he now regularly fields questions at press conferences about whether he has plans to resign.
Wheeler does not intend to resign.
Instead, the mayor said, he’s trying to strike a balance: He’s a middle-aged, white male who comes from an affluent background. He’s trying to usher the city of Portland through what he hopes is a complete overhaul of the city’s policing practices that leads to even broader changes addressing economic, housing and educational disparities.
“My role here is to listen. To understand,” Wheeler said, “and make the changes the public demands.”
The mayor’s ability to meet those demands — not to mention survive a reelection campaign under unprecedented circumstances — may hinge, in part, on his deepening political alliance with Hardesty.
On the streets
For two straight weeks, protesters have flooded Portland streets, calling on the city to overhaul its policing practices and address decades of systemic racism in the wake of police officers killing Floyd.
Wheeler has held nearly daily press conferences and responded with policy changes, with three of the police bureau's most controversial units — including the Gun Violence Reduction Team — toppled in a week. Compared with the often sluggish pace of City Hall bureaucracy, these shifts have come at an almost dizzying clip. But for many protesters, who are calling each night for the city to reduce or outright disband its police force, the policy changes feel incremental and predictable.
Community activist Lilith Sinclair, 25, has repeatedly called for the mayor's resignation — on OPB’s “Think Out Loud,” on Twitter and while protesting. Sinclair said they had been tear-gassed extensively over the many nights of protests. Without an end to police gassing, Sinclair said, the other reforms the mayor has initiated feel like lip service.
“He does, as the police commissioner, have the power ... to order the police to stop tear gassing residents. That is a tangible, easy and almost undeniably immediate action that Ted Wheeler could take,” Sinclair said.
Wheeler said he doesn't like the gas, calling it "ugly" and "not focused enough." But he's stopped short of issuing a full ban.
The deputy police chief has said it’s likely the safest way to disperse a crowd once they believe they’ve turned violent. Wheeler’s directed the police to use it only when people are in danger and there’s no “viable alternative.”
The direction did not appear significantly different from the police’s current policies surrounding tear gas, and police continued to use the chemical after his order.
“Incremental change and reform games and taking no strong position one way or the other is exactly the kind of leadership that Portland cannot abide by,” Sinclair said.
Where Wheeler has been the target of frustration, Hardesty is being praised for her ability to clearly articulate her vision for the city’s future.
“In an ideal world, Ted would be advocating before Jo Ann,” said John Russell, a real estate developer who has long advised mayors and who had a close relationship with three-term Mayor Vera Katz. Even if “the end result would be the same,” he said.
That’s a notion the mayor resists.
“As I think about my role in this movement, I came to the conclusion early: To move forward in a meaningful way, we have to elevate Black voices,” Wheeler said. “I’ve spent my time doing more listening and less talking over the last couple of weeks.”
Before social distancing forced everyone to isolate, Hardesty and Wheeler went to dinner once a month. Hardesty called Wheeler a “deep thinker” whose sense of humor initially surprised her.
“I think he gets a bad rap,” Hardesty said.
“People have really unrealistic expectations and they just don’t know how hard he works and how much he has done so far to change policing,” Hardesty said.
Wheeler, who was once the state’s treasurer and head of the Multnomah County Commission, is often described as an introvert. He’s more comfortable sticking with the facts; a man whose brain is better suited for numbers than small chat or conveying passion.
Near the end of March, when Oregonians were anxiously bracing for the toll of a deadly virus but not yet ordered to stay in their homes, Wheeler appeared to finally hit his political stride.
He was hailed for putting political pressure on Gov. Kate Brown to order a lockdown. The narrative shifted away from his inability to address the city's housing crisis and why his reelection campaign seemed so uninspired.
But the moment was fleeting.
Wheeler said he realizes he’s seen as “part of the status quo” right now and isn’t afraid to be the target of exasperation. That’s part of the job, he said. And he’s comfortable taking his cues from Hardesty on this issue. She has been working on police accountability issues for a long time.
“She’s one of the smartest, most dedicated public servants I’ve ever had the privilege to work with,” Wheeler said. “She has a strategic mind. She has a kind heart … And she has life experience that I will never have.”
All of this comes at a time when Wheeler is facing a reelection campaign against an opponent who has been vocal long before the protests about wanting to hold police more accountable. Part of mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone’s platform has been removing all armed police officers from Portland public schools and dissolving the city’s Gun Violence Reduction Team — moves Wheeler only recently took — along with requiring future police officers to live in the city where they work before being hired. Only about 20% of the force currently lives within city limits.
And while the city faces some of the most intense pressures it's seen to make substantial changes, in the background, Wheeler is also dealing with personal turmoil; his mother died last week, and he is in the midst of a divorce.
Last week, Wheeler threw his support behind Hardesty's proposal to remove $15 million from the police budget.
The changes would end the Gun Violence Reduction Team, a unit that investigates shootings in the city, and stop Portland police from enforcing fares on TriMet; both police specialty units that have been repeatedly called out for disproportionately targeting people of color. The cuts would also terminate the city's school resource officer program.
But for some — including Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who voted against the budget — the reforms don’t meet the moment. Before the protests began, the mayor and Hardesty had already agreed to review the specialty units within the police bureau and considered defunding them during the next budget cycle. That was a concession made by Hardesty, who knew at the time she didn’t have the votes to get the units dissolved.
Even with this budget cut, there will still be more than $200 million flowing into the police bureau — hardly the dismantling of the police force some are demanding.
Devin Boss, one of the organizers of the nightly protests who can often be found at the front of the marches, said he’s eagerly watching the reforms taking place in Minneapolis, where the city council has pledged to dismantle its police force. For him, Portland’s current version of reform falls flat.
“I want the system to be restructured,” Boss said. “It’s rooted in white supremacy — that’s the problem. In order to remove that element, if it requires completely dismantling the police force then, yes, I want it completely dismantled.”
One year ago, Hardesty and Wheeler clashed over funding for the Gun Violence Reduction Team.
Today, they both agree slashing its budget is only the first step.
Hardesty said the city now has the mandate to “reimagine all of our systems” that provide unequal outcomes.
And Wheeler echoed the sentiment, “I don’t fear the transformational changes ahead of us. I hope this momentum continues to build to root out other injustices and inequalities.”