An investigation has cleared a Portland police lieutenant of misconduct for seemingly friendly text messages he exchanged with Joey Gibson while working as the commanding officer managing communications with protesters in 2017 and 2018.
Gibson is the leader of the group Patriot Prayer. In recent years, he has organized several rallies that have brought white supremacists to Portland and ended in violence between his group and counter protesters.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and police Chief Danielle Outlaw announced the findings at a press conference Thursday.
Lt. Jeff Niiya was under scrutiny for messages he exchanged with Gibson in 2017 and 2019 in his official role communicating with protest organizers.
The investigation was conducted by Independent Police Review, a division of the City Auditor's Office. It reviewed three allegations of potential misconduct: that Niiya had engaged in unprofessional behavior, failed to maintain objectivity and inappropriately disclosed information to Gibson that allowed individuals to avoid arrest.
IPR's investigators concluded that all three allegations were "not sustained," meaning they did not have sufficient evidence to prove Niiya had violated any police directives.
The investigators also noted that they "did not identify any concerning behavior on the part of Lt. Niiya."
But the police bureau, IPR said, had failed to provide Niiya with training or guidance on how to fulfill his role communicating with protest groups.
"Simply put, Lt. Niiya was left to figure it out on his own," the investigators wrote. "As a result, Lt. Niiya has faced personal criticism, and damage to his professional reputation, in large part because the Police Bureau failed to clearly describe Lt. Niiya's job to him and failed to provide him training on how he should do it."
The investigation ultimately went to Outlaw for a review and final decision. Outlaw went further than IPR, and found all three allegations were "unfounded."
"The language in the investigation clearly states there was no evidence to support the allegations considered," Outlaw said.
Outlaw said the public — and the media — had judged Niiya without examining the full context of his actions. She said that along with the investigation, the bureau was planning to release more than 11,000 text messages the lieutenant had exchanged with a variety of protesters.
Outlaw said the bureau has taken steps to formalize the role of crowd liaisons and create standard operating procedures for the job. The liaisons were sent to Canada for training in June.
In the most controversial messages, Niiya had shared information about other protest groups’ movements and communicated with Gibson about an active arrest warrant for one of his associates, Tusitala Toese, saying Toese was unlikely to get arrested during an upcoming protest.
Niiya and his supervisors told IPR that he'd shared the information about the warrant in an effort to influence Toese's behavior, and to dissuade him from coming to Portland or participating in fighting.
Investigators concluded that the warrant information Niiya had shared was publicly available, and that his explanation of his intentions was credible.
The Willamette Week and Portland Mercury obtained Niiya's text messages through public records requests and published them in February. The messages — and the local and national reaction to them — touched off a political firestorm.
At the time Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as Portland’s police commissioner, was quick to distance himself from the bureau he oversees. He said the text messages “appear to cross several boundaries,” and unnecessarily encouraged Gibson “the leader of a group that perpetrates hate speech and violence.”
Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly also condemned Niiya.
“There are members of the Portland police force who work in collusion with right-wing extremists,” Hardesty said.
In response, the union representing Niiya, the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association, filed a Human Resources complaint against Wheeler, Eudaly and Hardesty, saying their comments had created a hostile work environment for Niiya.
The union said Niiya was acting under direction from his managers, who told him to establish relationships with people who regularly plan demonstrations in Portland. Records obtained by the Oregonian/OregonLive showed that the mayor’s staff had frequently asked Niiya for intelligence about Gibson.
Union spokesman Lt. Craig Morgan accused the mayor of willful ignorance or being deliberately misleading in his comments about the situation.
The incident was among several that have prompted advocacy and civil rights groups in Portland to allege the Police Bureau has a bias against left-wing and antiracist protesters and treats far-right groups differently.
In response to the calls from his colleagues and community outrage over the texts, Wheeler pledged to hire an outside agency to investigate allegations of biased policing during protest.
The city has hired the National Police Foundation to conduct that review, which is still ongoing.