As Protests Against Police Upend Portland City Hall, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty Is In Charge

Mayor Ted Wheeler is the police commissioner, and in charge of the city’s budget, but Hardesty is at the wheel.

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: Portland’s uprising against police violence has achieved results in City Hall—where the Police Bureau’s budget is being reduced by $15 million. (Brian Brose)

As Portland city leaders scramble to respond to an outpouring of anguish and fury from the city's black community over police brutality, the new environment is rearranging the power structure at City Hall.

Consider, for example, a frosty email exchange between city officials on June 15 over who should respond to complaints that riot cops were roughing up reporters.

On Monday morning, Oregonian photographer Beth Nakamura tweeted that a cop had "slammed" her with a baton at a weekend protest, the latest in a series of complaints about police mistreatment of the press.

"Reporters, send every complaint to my office," Mayor Ted Wheeler tweeted back. "And we will investigate every one."

That afternoon, City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero took exception to that response, emailing Wheeler and other commissioners and urging them to let her office's Independent Police Review do its job and handle complaints from reporters.

"When you solicit people to contact you instead of IPR or promise that you will investigate their complaints, you may be interfering in a case that is underway or introducing the perception that the process is politicized," Hull Caballero wrote.

"Worse yet, if you are taking case information from potential complainants before IPR has the opportunity to conduct an interview, your actions could lead to a case being overturned downstream."

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty—not Wheeler—responded via email, copying all commissioners and their chiefs of staff as she came to Wheeler's defense. "IPR doesn't have the trust of the community or the police," Hardesty wrote. "No reason to think it would be any different this time."

Hull Caballero hit back. "You took an oath to uphold the Charter of the City of Portland and its laws," she emailed the same day. "If you don't like them, change them. In the meantime, complainants should be referred to IPR."

The exchange captures an emerging dynamic at City Hall: Wheeler is the police commissioner, and in charge of the city's budget, but Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is at the wheel. And the two have struck an unlikely alliance: one of them a white, mild-mannered timber heir from the West Hills, and the other, a fiery black activist from the city's outer eastside.

The partnership was on full display in the City Council's attempt last week to adopt the 2020-21 budget. That went anything but smoothly, with hundreds of people imploring the council in Zoom testimony to cut the Portland Police Bureau's funding by $50 million, and tens of thousands more making the same demand via email.

In the end, Hardesty, with Wheeer's support, pushed through amendments removing $15 million from the bureau's $234 million budget, shutting down three units—the Gun Violence Reduction Team, school resource officers, and TriMet transit cops— she says perpetuate racism, and gutting the Special Emergency Reaction Team, the city's SWAT unit.

Here are five things to know about last week's budget talks:

1. Power now runs through Hardesty. Wheeler oversees the Police Bureau. In the wake of Portland protests and a national call to defund the police, Wheeler needed dramatic action. He tepidly proposed cutting the police budget by $5 million—a proposal Hardesty tripled. A year ago, when Hardesty introduced budget amendments, "the mayor almost lost his mind," she recalls. Since then, she says, they've met for drinks monthly and worked closely on numerous issues.

2. Protesters will be back for more. Hundreds of people gathered outside City Hall before the vote, demanding more extensive cuts to he police budget. To veteran PPB critics, cutting $15 million seemed like a lot. Hundreds of thousands of people emailed City Hall, many saying they wanted $50 million in cuts. Hardesty says that's just a number. "You have to be able to make the case for the cuts," Hardesty says. "You have to show your analysis. They didn't have it."

3. City Hall learned a new term: "performative ally." In a dramatic twist, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly voted against adopting the budget, just minutes after she had voted to support Hardesty's $15 million in cuts. Eudaly shocked onlookers with her reversal, saying the amendments didn't go far enough. Hardesty quickly issued a harsh appraisal of Eudaly's vote. "While my colleague can take a principled 'no' stance on passing this budget, I as a Black woman cannot," Hardesty said in a statement. "I do not want to let this detract from the very real steps taken, but it is an important reminder on what performative allyship looks like." That's a common term in activist circles, but probably less familiar at City Hall. It refers to a privileged white person who grandstands to support people of color when it's convenient. Meanwhile, the remark exposes a long-simmering rift between the two most progressive members of the City Council—one with high stakes as Eudaly seeks to hold on to her seat. (Hardesty endorsed Eudaly in May but says she will not endorse anyone in the November general election.)

4. The police are still a world unto themselves. One of the key tenets of American democracy is that the people with guns, whether they are the U.S. military or law enforcement, report to civilians. But in Portland, defunding the police is so far proving more effective than supervising them. Overshadowed by former Police Chief Jami Resch's unexpected decision to step down after only six months on the job last week is a remarkable fact: Resch—not Wheeler—selected her successor, Lt. Chuck Lovell. "He's the exact right person at the right moment," Resch told reporters after Wheeler accepted her suggestion that Lovell take her job. "I supported Chief Resch's decision to step down," Wheeler tells WW in a statement. "It is the kind of leadership that I expect: humility, wisdom and foresight to know what the community needs. There is no script to follow during this transformational time. Chief Resch followed her instincts, I agreed with them. We have full confidence in Chief Lovell's leadership."

5. All eyes are on Daryl Turner. For a decade, Officer Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, has dictated terms to City Hall: at the bargaining table, in arbitration and at budget time. His members enjoy extraordinary job protections—and protections from transparency. Last week, he responded to proposed cuts in measured terms, urging City Hall not to make cops an "easy scapegoat." Turner is headed toward the end of his tenure later this year, and the city's considering a one-year extension of its existing labor contract with police. Given the power and pain behind Hardesty and her army of reformers, the easiest thing for Turner personally and City Hall collectively may be to extend the current contract and negotiate the next one with his rookie successor.

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