Since the election of President Donald Trump in November 2016, street protests have defined Portland in the eyes of the nation. Nobody in law enforcement knows more about those protests than Lt. Jeff Niiya, who until earlier this year commanded the Portland Police Bureau's rapid response team.
Now, thanks to a six-month investigation that produced 850 pages of material, we know a lot more about him. And we've learned that his controversial communications were common knowledge at City Hall.
Niiya figured prominently in WW and other media's reporting on protest culture. First, The Oregonian and WW identified him as the handler of a young antifascist informant named June Davies ("Voices," WW, Dec. 26, 2017). More explosively, WW and The Portland Mercury reported on his chummy text messages with a prominent right-winger, Joey Gibson, the Vancouver, Wash., leader of Patriot Prayer ("A Tiny Problem," WW, Feb. 20, 2019). WW obtained the texts via a public records request.
Those stories led the police commissioner, Mayor Ted Wheeler, to demand an investigation of whether the Police Bureau favored right-wing extremists, as some Portlanders believed. Last week, Wheeler and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw announced the investigation's result: Niiya was exonerated of any wrongdoing.
In a rare move, the bureau released nearly the entire file, including transcripts, text messages and other documents gathered in the Independent Police Review investigation. (It didn't have to—Oregon's police-friendly public records law exempts personnel investigations that don't result in discipline.) There's plenty to learn in the hundreds of pages of documents the bureau released. Here are five takeaways.
1. Niiya had no training in protest sleuthing. Niiya joined the Portland Police Bureau in 1996. As far back as 2005, when animal rights activists regularly protested outside the now-shuttered Schumacher Furs store, Niiya acted as a "liaison" between warring tribes. He resumed that work in earnest after Trump's election, as evidenced by more than 11,000 text messages investigators reviewed. Other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Washington State Patrol and Oregon Department of Justice, sought his expertise. It was all self-taught. Asked whether he'd received training to work with political protesters, Niiya said, "Absolutely none, no."
2. Niiya talked to more people on the left than the right—until a high-profile antifascist shut that door. The investigative report includes hundreds of text messages with a half-dozen left-wing figures. Niiya's conversations with them about demonstration timing, tactics and locations echo those he had with Gibson. In one conversation, Niiya told a Police Bureau colleague via text that he had "let the veil back a bit." He told the left-wingers, "I probably align with some more of your ideas than you probably believe," and noted that his wife and children were Jewish. "My friends are all immigrants," Niiya told his colleague. Such sympathies did him no good, however, after Luis Marquez, an antifascist leader, disclosed in October 2017 that Niiya was in regular communication with Davies. That brought all his text messaging with the left to what Niiya called a "shock-stop."
3. After the left froze Niiya out, he wanted to quit the protest beat—but nobody wanted his job. He suggested others for the position and texted one of them, Sgt. Martin Schell, shortly after the left cut him off. "Would you be interested in doing what I'm doing for protest work?" he texted Schell on Oct. 25, 2017. "Don't know if I could fill your shoes," Schell replied. Niiya stayed in place. "I was becoming ineffective versus what I had done earlier in my time, but due to the void and the fact we still needed the job done, they kept me in it," Niiya told investigators in an April 2019 interview.
4. Mayor Wheeler's staff—and the mayor, for that matter—knew about Niiya texting with Gibson. On Feb. 19 of this year, Wheeler issued a statement of outrage about Niiya's text messages with Gibson. "The released text messages, which I learned about in today's Willamette Week, are disturbing," the mayor said. "It is imperative for law enforcement to remain objective and professional, and in my opinion, these text messages appear to cross several boundaries." But Wheeler's former public safety adviser, Berk Nelson, told investigators he was in regular contact with Niiya about the lieutenant's intelligence gathering. Niiya even arranged a June 2017 meeting between Gibson and Wheeler. "[Niiya] indicated Mayor Wheeler himself complimented Lt. Niiya on his liaison work," the investigation found. (Clarification: Wheeler says he knew Niiya was communicating with Gibson but didn't know the
specific contents of the texts in question.)
5. Niiya says police command staff, including Chief Danielle Outlaw, also knew what he was doing. Prior to the release of the investigative material last week, the Police Bureau provided little explanation for Niiya's communications with either side of the protest movement, despite repeated media requests for such context. Yet much of the bureau's top brass should have been able to explain Niiya's contacts to the press, the mayor and the public. "This investigation found Lt. Niiya carried out his liaison work at the behest of Police Bureau command staff, and with their knowledge," the report says. Niiya himself complained that the bureau seemed unprepared to discuss his work, even though he had kept the chief informed. "Our current chief of police is someone else that knew about my text messages," he told an investigator. "This Police Bureau and the executive management of this organization can't seem to get out in front of this, and we knew about these [records] requests since November of 2018."