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An unseemly rush to judgment in Portland

Updated: Sep 28, 2019

Like many Portland comrades I was troubled by the revelation of friendly texts exchanged between Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Lt. Jeff Niiya, in his role as the bureau's crowd control liaison, and Joey Gibson, leader of the right-wing Patriot Prayer gang. The texts, variously described as cozy and chummy, showed Niiya coordinating protest activities with Gibson, providing him with information about antifascist marches, when antifa would be out in black bloc mode out to confront Patriot Prayer, and other, unrelated protests. He went so far as to warn Gibson about an outstanding arrest warrant for a prominent member of Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys. Gibson replied to a reporter's question about his relationship with Niiya with a one-word text: "Sweet." Willamette Week reported in February that it was unclear whether the police bureau also communicated with antifascist organizers (Shepherd).

The texts gave credence to a perception widespread within certain circles that the police bureau favors right-wing groups. The absence of comparable communication with left-wing representatives made Niiya's overtures to Gibson appear all the more damning. I am less inclined than some to go in for kneejerk, blanket demonization of police. This looked bad though.

Portland City Council firebrands Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly were quick to condemn Niiya and PPB, with Hardesty stating the texts confirmed that members of the police bureau work in collusion with right-wing extremists (OPB). Mayor Ted Wheeler demanded an investigation to determine if there was truth to the charges.

A report of the investigation conducted by Independent Police Review, a division of the City Auditor's Office, cleared Niiya of allegations of misconduct. On September 12, in what Willamette Week described as a rare move, the police bureau released the investigation file to the public (Jaquiss).

The comments that follow are based on reporting about contents of the file, some 850 pages of transcripts, text messages, and other documents gathered during the course of the investigation. The file provides context that makes for a more complete and complex, those less charitably disposed might disdainfully say nuanced, account of Niiya's interactions with Gibson and the absence of comparable communication with the left.

Jeff Niiya joined the police bureau in 1996 and was involved in the role of crowd control liaison as far back as 2005 during protests by animal rights activists. PPB never provided him with any training or guidance and had no established policy regarding communications with protest groups. He was left to figure it out for himself as he went along.

The appearance that Niiya's outreach was directed solely to the right turns out to be misleading. Up until October 2017 he talked with more people on the left than on the right. The investigation file contained hundreds of text messages between him and a half-dozen left-wing figures. Niiya told them, "I probably align with some more of your ideas than you probably believe," and related to a colleague that his friends are all immigrants (Jaquiss).

The left froze him out after it was revealed that he was in regular communication with a young antifascist informant. Antifa for its part does not cooperate with police and other authorities as a matter of ideology. The one-sidedness of police outreach is on them, not on Niiya.

Niiya's explanations for the tenor and substance of his communications with Gibson are credible. He acknowledged to investigators that the tone of his messages might not look good and explained his rationale for adopting that approach:

"I understand how this looks and how the context of this sounds, but you don’t get cooperation by, bluntly, being an asshole to people, right. And whether it’s the left or the right...respect is something that you have to be given, and so I respect these folks. I mean, they’re—whether it’s the left or right, I respect what they’re doing. I respect that they’re willing to come out and put themselves out in a public form like this. So, are they friendly? Sure. Do I condone the actions of the group? Absolutely not." (Bernstein)

Niiya shared information about the arrest warrant for Gibson's associate Tusitala "Tiny" Toese hoping to dissuade Toese from coming to Portland or participating in fighting and out of concern for public safety if an arrest were to be attempted in the midst of a chaotic protest.

PPB announced the following actions in response to the investigation's findings:

  • Personnel sent to Canada in June for training about crowd liaisons,

  • Creation of internal training conducted for crowd liaisons on August 14,

  • Development of a standard operating procedure for crowd liaisons,

  • Obtaining new uniforms to increase transparency and communication, and

  • Review of PPB's demonstration response by the National Police Foundation to assess tactics, communications, and policy, dating back to 2017. (PPB Media Relations)

These remedial steps strike the right notes. The proof will be in what comes of them.

Reporting by Willamette Week and Portland Mercury relied on texts obtained through public records requests. Nothing in the February 2019 articles by Shepherd and Zielinksi suggests that reporters dug deeper to find out if there might be more to the story. While these initial reports were grounds for serious concern, the eagerness with which certain city officials, civic leaders, and others took them at face value as confirmation for previously held suspicions about the police bureau misconduct is as disappointing as it was predictable. He acted not out of support for right-wing extremists but from a desire to circumvent violence.

The police bureau was clearly negligent in failing to provide guidance, training, and oversight for Niiya. That was a recipe for less than optimal outcomes. The evidence indicates that Niiya carried out his role conscientiously and honorably. He may not have always gotten it right, but he appears to have acted responsibly and in good faith in difficult circumstances.

Heated rhetoric and hyperbole are the currency of the day. We do not always have the luxury of withholding judgment until we are certain that all the evidence is in. Public officials, the media, and ordinary citizens alike do best when they temper commentary with a modest dose of circumspection.

The mayor said he has told Niiya, "In retrospect, I wish I would have been more overt about giving you the benefit of the doubt" (Bernstein). A cursory online search failed to uncover an admission from Hardesty or Eudaly that they may have spoken in precipitous haste. Maybe I missed it.


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