PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — Most of the approximately 550 people arrested in Portland, Oregon, since May 29 in protests against police brutality and systemic racism won’t be prosecuted, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt announced Tuesday.
Just 11 days into his new term as elected district attorney, Schmidt announced Tuesday that his office will decline to prosecute cases related to the protests that do not involve violence, theft, or deliberate property damage. His office will not pursue charges of disorderly conduct, interfering with a police officer, criminal trespass and most charges of rioting. There will be no change in how prosecutors handle cases like arson and assault.
Schmidt said Tuesday that the policy was an attempt to “create a forum” for Portlanders to express their “collective grief, anger and frustration” about the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and about “the countless other abuses people of color have endured in our country throughout history.
“As prosecutors, we acknowledge the depth of emotion that motivates these demonstrations and support those who are civically engaged through peaceful protesting,” Schmidt said at a Tuesday press conference. “We recognize that we will undermine public safety, not promote it, if we leverage the force of our criminal justice system against peaceful protestors who are demanding to be heard.”
Charges of resisting arrest will be treated with “a high level of scrutiny,” to consider the chaos of mass demonstrations and whether police have subjected protesters to clouds of tear gas in the moments before arrests, Schmidt said.
He added that his office has a team of 10 deputy district attorneys reviewing all protest-related charges.
Out of about 550 people arrested for their part in Portland’s 75 straight days of protests against police brutality and systemic racism, about 50 were charged with felonies that have already been prosecuted, according to Nathan Vasquez, senior deputy district attorney. Another 100 were charged with felonies in cases where Schmidt’s office has asked police to complete additional investigation before deciding whether to pursue the charges. For the remaining 400 people facing misdemeanors, Schmidt’s office will likely drop all charges.
The announcement came on the day after police arrested hate crime survivor Demetria Hester. Hester was assaulted in 2017 by Jeremy Christian, on the night before Christian slashed the throats of three men on a crowded commuter train, killing two. The night before the murders, Christian cornered Hester on a MAX light-rail train and screamed racist insults at her. He followed her off the train and assaulted her, damaging her vision in one eye.
Hester sprayed Christian with Mace and managed to get away, and immediately reported the incident to a Portland police officer who had been called to the scene by the train’s conductor. But the officer let Christian walk away from the train, instead focusing his questioning on Hester. Seventeen hours later, Christian murdered two men and nearly killed a third on that very same train.
At his sentencing hearing, Christian again screamed at Hester, this time as she gave her victim impact statement: “I should have killed you, bitch!” Christian yelled as deputies dragged him from the courtroom.
Hester is now a prominent protester, out every night leading chants with a megaphone. She heads the group Mothers United for Black Lives Matter. Dressed in yellow, the group’s members often link arms and form a line directly in front of police, saying they want to protect protesters from police violence. On Sunday night, police appeared to single Hester out for arrest, plucking her from within a group. Video of the incident shows her complying with officers as they lead her to a van.
Hester was released Monday and Schmidt’s office announced that it would drop the charges against her. Eight hours later, Hester was back in the streets, leading chants with a voice that cracked with exhaustion.
That night, as on many nights of Portland protests, Courthouse News observed violent arrests triggered by protesters throwing small projectiles at a line of riot police, such as eggs and a plastic water bottles.
About 150 people rallied in N.E. Portland’s Alberta Park Monday night, before marching to the nearby North Precinct. There, riot police with both the Portland Police Bureau and Oregon State Troopers met protesters, grouped in clusters behind chain link fences and forming a line along the side of the building that sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
After a standoff, police rushed the crowd, tackling protesters to the ground and holding some immobile while pepper-spraying them in the face. Then police pushed the group away from the police precinct and into the neighborhood nearby.
Portland Police, Oregon State Police and one unmarked maroon truck filled with four officers in beige fatigues followed protesters west as police announced over a loud speaker that they had declared an unlawful assembly and “the area” was closed. After that, it was a game of cat-and-mouse, with protesters regrouping and heading back toward the North Precinct and then scattering when the police vans tracking them appeared.
It was then, on a residential street, that police found the group Hester was with and tackled her to the ground. But unlike Sunday night, they didn’t arrest her. Hester said later she thought police had recognized her iconic backpack — bright yellow and covered with images of the cartoon character SpongeBob Squarepants — and used it to haul her roughly to her feet, breaking its straps.
“You! Get up and go!” an officer yelled as he shoved Hester in the back.
Although the policy directs prosecutors’ actions, rather than directly ordering changes in policing patterns, Schmidt said Tuesday that he hoped it would result in fewer of the types of arrests described above.
“We’re announcing this policy so it’s clear that those types of cases won’t be charged,” Schmidt told Courthouse News. “That doesn’t say those arrests won’t happen. But it would be my hope that those types of arrests won’t happen.”
Schmidt added he met with Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell this past Friday and incorporated Lovell’s criticisms about the treatment of riot charges into the final policy. As is, prosecutors will drop rioting charges except when accompanied by violence, theft or deliberate property destruction.
“The way we’ve been talking about it internally is riot present, versus riot active,” Schmidt said. “What we are doing is recognizing that the right to speak and have your voice heard is very important. If you are out there harming others or damaging property, those cases will be prosecuted. But if you are out there protesting and you get caught up in the melee, those are the cases we are talking about. Not prosecuting those cases will not result in any additional public safety hazard.”
A spokeswoman with the Portland Police Bureau did not respond to an inquiry about whether the new policy would change police behavior on the ground.
Next up for review, Schmidt said, will be policies on cash bail and police accountability measures.
Ricardo Lujan-Valerio, head of Portland’s Latino Network and part of Schmidt’s community transition team, said Tuesday that the new policy was aimed at reimagining what public safety truly means.
“We are living in a time of reckoning,” Lujan-Valerio said. “This is something that has been happening to Black and brown people for a long time. Why we see people out in the street today is to call for change. The system is not broken. It was never built for us.”
Kevin Modika, former assistant Portland police chief and another member Schmidt’s community transition team, pointed out that policing in the United States began as a method to enforce slavery and other property rights. He said Black people have been fighting unjust policing for centuries.
“This is not anything to be afraid of,” said Modica, who retired in 2017. “I’m speaking directly toward those involved in public safety. The move toward reform has been an ongoing process. It doesn’t mean you cannot do your job, but it does mean that after you do your job, you cannot hold on to your arrests like a caged animal. It does mean that you have done your job and now that arrest is going through the system.”