Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler says he is fully committed to a police bureau that is transparent and accountable.

But in his monthly press conference Tuesday, Wheeler shared little detail about how he intends to handle an unprecedented independent investigation he has promised into communications between a lieutenant at the bureau and Joey Gibson, the leader of Patriot Prayer.

The text messages have reignited concerns among Portland activists and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty that Portland police are sympathetic to far-right groups and biased against left-wing groups such as Antifa.

Wheeler was asked Tuesday why acts of violence caught on video between right-wing activists and left-wing counterprotesters haven’t led to more arrests. Berk Nelson, his public safety adviser, said he met with city detectives and lawyers from the Multnomah County district attorney’s office last month to discuss that question.

The group went frame by frame through one of the most notorious brawls caught on camera, a fight between Patriot Prayer and masked Antifa counterprotesters outside Kelly’s Olympian in October.

“It’s a complicated legal issue with self-defense and people who are acquiescing to violence and coming in a form of mutual combat,” Nelson said.

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

Nelson said that in that particular case, people involved in the fight had been unwilling to identify themselves as victims of a crime.

“You have to have someone who is willing to file a complaint. You need to get cooperation from the public,” Nelson said.

Nelson said prosecutors have told him they’ve had difficulty identifying victims and prosecuting other cases.

Under criticism from the police lieutenant’s union, Wheeler doubled down Tuesday on his decision to call for an independent investigation into text messages the police bureau’s liaison to demonstrators sent to a controversial activist.

“I do not believe it was an over reaction,” he said.   

The mayor said the investigation will focus on the narrow question of how the bureau communicates with people planning demonstrations in Portland.

“What is our policy? Is it an appropriate policy?” Wheeler said. “Is the policy uniformly implemented or is there any bias? And what does the bureau actually get out of this policy in terms of information?”

Wheeler didn’t say who will lead the investigation or how long it will take. He suggested the inquiry could be done by any group approved by his office and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw, but also noted that any “employment questions” would have to be resolved through the bureau’s internal investigation.

Mayor Ted Wheeler listens to testimony at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. City Council voted to withdraw Portland police from the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Mayor Ted Wheeler listens to testimony at City Hall in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019. City Council voted to withdraw Portland police from the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Wheeler also said he has met with Patriot Prayer organizer Joey Gibson: “I did attend that meeting. I remember it. I would describe it as completely useless from my perspective,” he said.

Asked a follow-up question, Wheeler acknowledged that he hadn’t just attended a meeting with Gibson; he requested it.

“I was hearing loudly and clearly from the public that they did not want people to come into our community sometimes with the express intent of committing acts of violence,” he said. “My recollection was, I asked Mr. Gibson what we could do to mitigate those impacts. And he basically didn’t have a lot to say. That was the only time I’ve ever spoken to Mr. Gibson in person.”