Portland DA responds to property destruction with new regulations

Multnomah+District+Attorney+Mike+Schmidt+works+to+define+how+the+city+will+respond+to+the+summer+2020+protests.

Courtesy of the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office

Multnomah District Attorney Mike Schmidt works to define how the city will respond to the summer 2020 protests.

Katlyn Kenney

The city of Portland entered 2021 with fresh vandalism from destructive protesters, causing Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah District Attorney Mike Schmidt to evaluate the future of demonstrations in the city and how vandalism would be dealt with. 

When District Attorney Schmidt stepped into his new role on Aug. 1, 2020. He was immediately faced with responding to the protests throughout Portland that began in May following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minnesota. Shortly after taking office, he communicated his policy on if, when and how demonstrators would be prosecuted.

The policy states that “the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office will presumptively decline to prosecute a case where the most serious offense is a city ordinance violation or where the crime(s) do not involve deliberate property damage, theft or the use or threat of force against another person.”

In a recent interview with The Cardinal Times, Schmidt explained what led him to create this policy. 

“There’s a bunch of things that went into making the policy,” said Schmidt. “One of them is considering whether there is actual harm. Another was considering what the value of prosecution is. We tried to draw the line not wanting to silence or stifle speech, but also make sure that when people cross that line from just speech-related activities into damage, that that’s where we want [to prosecute].”

This has been the DA’s office approach since August, but recent events have now brought his policy back into the spotlight. 

After New Year’s Eve demonstrations that included the vandalism of buildings in Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler responded by announcing there would be new regulations on protests.

According to city officials, the protestors on New Year’s Eve were said to be “In solidarity with BLM” but had no apparent focus towards the movement. Some demonstrators threw fireworks at police officers, started fires near the federal courthouse and broke the windows of multiple businesses in the area, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

In response to this damage, Wheeler reacted with the threat of harsher protest regulations, calling for tougher penalties for demonstrators causing destruction. 

Tim Becker, Spokesperson and Public Information Officer for the mayor’s office gave The Cardinal Times the following statement: “The senseless violence and vandalism in our streets is not what Portland is about. It is organized destruction. This is evidenced by the roving band of largely white men who recently rioted and broke windows at the Democratic Party Office. Signs they carried— ‘we want revenge’ and ‘we are ungovernable’— show they stand only for destruction and chaos. Their actions are not contributing to progress, but rather slowing it down and distracting from it. This is not the path to change.”

In the weeks after New Year’s, Wheeler backed down on his stance on heavier penalties.

“I think the mayor is frustrated, as are all of us when we see property destruction,” explains Schmidt. “Obviously, the mayor doesn’t believe— and I agree— that destroying somebody’s property, destroying a business, smashing out the windows, that’s not furthering the cause of racial justice. That’s damaging a business owner who’s already suffering through a pandemic, probably struggling to make it. That’s making their lives more difficult.”

Schmidt said he has been working closely with Wheeler in order to implement the policy he created in August, where arrests and prosecutions will be more focused on gathering concrete evidence of who caused destruction.

“The issue that we have been experiencing throughout these protests is that when property damage is happening, we’re not seeing arrests of the people who are actually doing the property damage and we aren’t getting the evidence that we need to prove those cases,” explains Schmidt. “[Mayor Wheeler] and I have been working along with the Portland Police Bureau to make sure that when people are destroying property, that we’re doing everything we can to make cases against those people.”

In focusing these prosecutions, not only is the DA’s office aiming to save taxpayer dollars by advancing fewer and more concrete cases, but they also hope to create a system that will serve as a deterrent for those considering vandalism.

“I think they’re absolutely setting back whatever causes they think that they are trying to help,” says Schmidt of destructive protestors. “In fact, unfortunately, I’ve had people reach out to me and say things like ‘these Black Lives Matter protesters are all violent criminals.’ Well, that’s not at all the case. That’s not true even remotely. But unfortunately, destruction and damage that this small group of people continue to engage in, not only are they sending back a cause, they’re sending the message to people who I guess maybe aren’t paying close attention that, you know, that these causes are violent or dangerous. They’re not… I think it’s a real negative.”

Schmidt fully supports and encourages peacefully protesting and using your voice, as he has seen that this does create change.

“When there’s those opportunities to have your voice heard, make yourself heard peacefully, obviously not engaging in any kind of violence,” advises Schmidt. “But beyond that, stay engaged. Don’t just go home when the protest is done, but get involved, find out who your local representatives are, your local senators, who’s your local district attorney, what are their policies that relate and how are they working in this to bring more equity and reduce disparity in our criminal justice system, get engaged, get involved, and then don’t let up.”

Both the District Attorney’s office and the mayor’s office are calling for the end of property destruction in Portland.

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