An independent review into the Portland Police Bureau’s apparent leak of a report that misidentified City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty as a driver in a minor-hit-and-run collision could expand into a wider probe of potential political and racial bias within the bureau.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who called for the outside review, and his staff have held multiple meetings with Hardesty, top police brass and the city attorney to determine the scope of the investigation. Those discussions remain ongoing.
The city has also sought the advice of Eric Ward, a nationally known civil rights strategist and expert on right-wing extremism.
Matt McNally, a Hardesty communications strategist, told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the commissioner believes the review must extend beyond the circumstances of the apparent leak to look into possible ties between the Police Bureau employee or employees and others involved and opponents of Hardesty, an outspoken police critic and the first Black woman elected to the Portland City Council.
It should also address perceptions among some Portlanders that the city’s police force favors certain political groups over others, including offering preferential treatment to right-wing activists compared with left-wing ones, McNally said.
Ward, who was contacted Sunday by City Attorney Robert Taylor and asked for his input, said he provided Taylor a perspective similar to Hardesty’s during a 30-minute conversation.
“Looking into those areas could help us understand the drivers that ultimately led to this incident against Commissioner Hardesty,” said Ward.
Such a broad scope may be tough politically for Wheeler, who must navigate ongoing demands for police reform and accountability while also serving as police commissioner over a demoralized force struggling amidst a surge of gun violence, property crimes and protest-related destruction across the city.
The city is also in the middle of contract negotiations with the union that represents most of the Portland Police Bureau’s sworn officers, further complicating how far the mayor could push an independent inquiry.
In an email sent to Hardesty on Tuesday, Wheeler said he wants a review of Portland police’s “overall culture,” but that such an investigation would have to be separate from the one focused on a leak.
One reason to separate them, he wrote, is that the firm officials have in mind to investigate the leak has experience doing such work, but Wheeler envisions hiring “another firm experienced at successfully improving police department work cultures” to check for bias.
“Many in the public have expressed a perception that the Police Bureau is influenced by racial or political bias when engaged in policing, and that the Police Bureau is resistant to changes sought by the community,” Wheeler wrote.
“The Police Bureau expresses a different view, which often leads the public and the Police Bureau to talk past each other on these fundamental issues bearing on public trust in the police. A third-party independent review into these broader issues will identify whether, and to what extent, the Police Bureau is influenced by racial or political bias and resistant to change.”
Deputy Chief Chris Davis said in a statement Tuesday, “We frequently participate in reviews and audits from third-parties and strive to be open and transparent in order to continuously develop and improve, and will continue to do so.”
The city recently hired the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at improving police work, to review Portland police responses to several mass demonstrations that occurred between 2017 and 2019. While the report found that police supervisors lacked training in crowd control tactics, it didn’t delve into whether police actions favored right-wing demonstrators as some residents have alleged.
Wheeler’s call for an independent probe came a day after police cleared Hardesty in a March 3 case in which a rear-ended driver mistakenly claimed the commissioner had struck her car and left the scene of the collision.
Reports that someone who had reported a hit-and-run crash had identified Hardesty as a suspect to police surfaced that morning. The Oregonian/OregonLive reached out repeatedly to Hardesty’s office for comment and published a news story that included Hardesty’s strong denial she was involved.
Andy Ngo, a conservative media personality with a large online following, published a story on the Post Millennial website, where he serves as an at-large editor. The Coalition to Save Portland, a pro-police political action committee, also shared that information in a morning Facebook Live post on its page.
Gabe Johnson, the coalition’s co-founder and director, told Willamette Week he received the report from an employee of the Portland Police Bureau, whom he refused to identify.
The information followed recent revelations that a Portland police officer likely doxxed Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, who some in the bureau believe is too soft on crime.
Schmidt told The Oregonian/OregonLive in February that it appeared an officer late last year took a screenshot from a city-issued mobile data terminal showing Schmidt’s address and that information subsequently surfaced online. The police bureau declined to comment on the allegation at the time and Chief Chuck Lovell later said he didn’t know anything about it.
The hit-and-run report that erroneously identified Hardesty also came after The Oregonian/OregonLive and other publications reported on a dispute between Hardesty and a Lyft driver along I-205 in Clark County.
Last week, in response to the hit-and-run report, the Portland Police Bureau launched a separate internal affairs investigation into what transpired.
— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh; 503-294-7632
Email at [email protected]
Follow on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh