Portland’s Mayor Wants Tougher Penalties for Late-Night Vandals. Can He Get Others to Buy In?

A new year, he argues, demands new rules. But his crackdown will require the cooperation of others.

At a Jan. 1 press conference, a visibly angry Mayor Ted Wheeler denounced "radical antifa and anarchists" and pledged a zero-tolerance policy for property destruction, following the continual vandalism of Portland businesses by protesters.

The mayor, sworn in for a second term Jan. 1, wants to stiffen criminal penalties for repeat vandals and improve police intel for tracking masked groups moving through city streets. Shattered windows and graffiti scrawls have become a regular feature of late-night protests against police in downtown Portland.

Wheeler sees the repeated civil unrest and vandalism as a no-win game for the city. A new year, he argues, demands new rules. But his crackdown will require the cooperation of others.

What does Ted want? Wheeler specifically called on the Oregon Legislature to increase criminal penalties for offenders who "repeatedly engage in criminal destruction and vandalism, to ensure that they can be held accountable for the cumulative impact of their illegal actions."

He also wants more surveillance power for the Portland Police Bureau.

"We need to look at reforms that improve our ability to video record and otherwise gather intelligence on these small groups of organized criminals," Wheeler said.

In Salem and nationally, the trend in criminal justice has been toward lighter penalties and less incarceration. Wheeler spokesman Jim Middaugh says the mayor is well aware he's bucking recent trends by seeking stiffer criminal penalties.

"That's a reflection of the fact that deescalation efforts have not been effective," Middaugh says. "He's mindful of the challenges but also mindful of the need to try something new."

Will the district attorney help? New Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt rode a wave of reform to overwhelming victory last May, and his hands-off approach to protesters this summer angered police and property owners. But Middaugh says Schmidt sent words of support to Wheeler before the Jan. 1 press conference and the men were scheduled to meet for a drink Jan. 5.

Brent Weisberg, a spokesman for the DA's office, says the mayor's office has not communicated to them specific details about plans to increase penalties for repeat offenders who destroy property.

"The Multnomah County District Attorney's Office continues to work with law enforcement to identify, investigate and prosecute criminal conduct, including property destruction and violence, that sometimes occurs during mass demonstrations," Weisberg said. "It is our current and continuing policy to prosecute these offenses whenever possible, using all legally obtained evidence submitted to our office for review."

Since racial justice protests began in late May, law enforcement has referred 140 protest-related property destruction cases to the DA's office. The office has pursued charges in 51 of those cases, according to its online dashboard, and rejected 69. Another 20 are currently pending.

Do Ted's ideas have a prayer in Salem? In June, the Legislature passed a package of criminal justice reform bills during a special session. Stiffening penalties, as Wheeler suggested, would be a move in the opposite direction. Still, lawmakers are open to "improv[ing] Oregon's criminal justice system," according to state Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene), longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Prozanski says he's not aware of any legislative concepts reflecting Wheeler's suggestions and it's not clear that the current penalty structure for property destruction crimes is insufficient.

"If Mayor Wheeler is suggesting mandatory minimum sentences, [Prozanski] would be firmly opposed," says Kevin Moore, a legislative aide to the senator.

Prozanski also disagreed with Wheeler's suggestion that lawmakers need to give police more leeway to video record and gather intelligence on groups that destroy property.

"[Prozanski] believes law enforcement already has the necessary 'tools' under current state law to conduct surveillance and gather evidence against organized criminals," Moore said. "If the mayor wants to extend those same tools to conduct surveillance and gather evidence against law-abiding individuals who are lawfully assembling and peacefully protesting their government, Floyd would oppose such legislation."

Middaugh says city staff, including the city's in-house lobbyists, met Jan. 4 to discuss legislative concepts that would include the mayor's ideas for responding to vandalism.

The new City Council was scheduled for a briefing on the city's legislative agenda Jan. 7, which now may be delayed to add the new concepts.

Wheeler might also find opposition there.

"Excessive property damage is already a felony under Oregon law," Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says. "While these illegal acts require a response, I'm confident our new DA Mike Schmidt will appropriately prosecute those arrested for engaging in destructive activity. I've seen the damaging impacts of 'tough on crime' legislation like Measure 11, which I vigorously opposed as a state legislator. I don't want to see us make those mistakes again."

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