City commissioner-elect Jo Ann Hardesty won't take office until January but her criticism of law-enforcement is already making waves.
The special agent in charge of the Portland FBI office, Renn Cannon, and a team of federal officials this morning held an unusual briefing at FBI headquarters to make the case that Portlanders are safer with the city as a member of the Joint Terrorism Task Force than if the City Council votes to leave the organization.
Cannon repeatedly used the metaphor of a safety net, saying that the combined resources of multiple law enforcement agencies working together provide a much higher probability of preventing terrorist acts than if agencies—specifically the Portland Police Bureau—decide to go it alone.
The trigger for Cannon's plea to preserve the JTTF: Hardesty's vow to vote against continuing the city's continued presence in the JTTF, which brings together officials from a dozen local and federal law enforcement agencies.
At an October debate at the City Club of Portland, Hardesty said that her first move upon replacing City Commissioner Dan Saltzman in the new year would be to press for the city to end its participation in the group.
"We cannot pretend to be a sanctuary city while we have people being targeted by our federal government," Oregon Public Broadcasting quoted Hardesty as saying. As WW has previously reported, it appears Hardesty will probably have a majority of City Council favoring withdrawal.
Today, Cannon spoke to the concerns of Hardesty and other critics, such as the ACLU of Oregon, that the JTTF might use its resources to target people who are in the country illegally. He said that the memorandum of understanding the governs the PPB's participation in the JTTF "walls off" Portland officers from involvement in any immigration actions.
Cannon said his agency is generally not concerned with immigration issues, and only uses immigration laws as a tool when no other options are available.
"I want to make it clear, the role of FBI is not to enforce immigration laws," Cannon said.
Although the FBI handed out a summary of previous JTTF cases and copies of the "Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide" that governs JTTF operations in a nod toward transparency, the briefing was short on specifics about staffing or current operations.
Cannon and his colleagues declined to describe how many JTTF agents are working on domestic terrorism cases and how many are working on international cases. He did say that in previous years, the local JTTF typically evaluated about 200 threats annually but this year, the number will be close to 300. He attributed the increase in part to awareness around mass shootings, such as the one at a high school in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year that left 17 students dead.
George Chamberlin, Cannon's top deputy, noted that only a "small fraction" of the threats the JTTF evaluates are deemed credible.
Cannon also addressed a recent report in The Guardian written by Portland-based reporter Jason Wilson headlined "FBI Now Classifies Proud Boys as Extremist Group."
Cannon confirmed that a Washington-based FBI agent briefed the Clark County Sheriff's staff. But Cannon said although a Clark County report cited in the Guardian story attributed the "extremist" label to the FBI, the federal agency doesn't "classify" any domestic groups of any ideology as "extremists" or put any other such labels on them. Nor, Cannon said, does the FBI investigate people simply because they are associated with a particular group.
"We did not intend and we do not designate groups as 'extremists' or 'not extremist,'" Cannon said. "We were talking about specific individuals who have committed acts of violence."
Portland has exited the JTTF before, leaving under former Mayor Tom Potter in 2005, rejoining on a part-time basis in 2011 and rejoining full-time in 2015. If the council were to vote to leave again next year, Portland would become the only major city in American besides San Francisco not to belong to the JTTF.
As the clock ticks toward a likely city council hearing on the JTTF, Cannon said he and his team have been meeting quarterly with Mayor Ted Wheeler; regularly meeting with other city commissioners; and, at Wheeler's urging, meeting with as many community groups as possible to explain the value of the JTTF.
Cannon said he will do whatever he can to convince Portlanders and city commissioners not to leave the JTTF. One person he hasn't been able to talk to yet: Hardesty, who is out of the country until Dec. 8.
"We are reaching out to Commissioner-elect Hardesty now," Cannon said. "But she's got a busy schedule."
Update, 6:30 pm: Hardesty was unmoved.
"As an advocate, I've heard over and over again the fear of community members, especially recent immigrants and refugees, who feel targeted by federal agents," she said in a statement. "Now, as a commissioner it is my duty to use this information and act. I am moving forward with my commitment to remove Portland from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in order to ensure all Portlanders, especially those marginalized and targeted by law enforcement, are protected. At the end of the day we must listen to those most impacted by policy. Time and time again our leadership has been called to protect our fellow community members and remove ourselves from this agreement. Their request is unwavering, and now is the time to listen and act."
Rachel Monahan contributed reporting to this story.