This City Council Race Could Be a Bellwether for Policing in Portland

Portland police officers surround the Ace Hotel. (Chris Nesseth)

The formidable reelection challenge Vadim Mozyrsky poses to Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty may ultimately double as a referendum on policing in Portland.

By nearly all accounts, Mozyrsky—a self-identified “center-left” candidate—is running to the right of Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to Portland City Council and a longtime critic of the Portland Police Bureau.

“I’m not a cheerleader for the police,” Mozyrsky tells WW. “We need people out there addressing crimes in one way or the other. That’s what differentiates society from, perhaps, anarchy.”

Since his move to Portland in 2014, Mozyrsky has served on multiple public safety boards in the city, including the Public Safety Action Coalition, the Citizen Review Committee, and the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing, known as PCCEP.

That experience is germane to this race: Mozyrsky faces an incumbent whose career centers on police reform.

For the past two years, Hardesty has been effective at implementing reform measures: She created and expanded Portland Street Response, the city’s first unarmed alternative to police, and she championed the 2020 passage of Measure 26-217, which dissolves the city’s current police oversight board, Independent Police Review, and replaces it with a community-led one that has the authority to discipline and terminate officers.

But Hardesty has also made several key missteps that have widened the chasm between her and law enforcement.

In June 2020, Hardesty pushed for the City Council’s vote to reduce PPB’s budget by $15 million, effectively disbanding the bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team. That decision was generally celebrated at the time but has become increasingly unpopular as Portlanders’ support for protests waned by the fall of 2020 and the city’s murder rate reached historic levels last year.

Hardesty has also struggled to rebuild the credibility she lost in July 2020 when she claimed without evidence during an interview with Marie Claire magazine that Portland police officers were starting fires at protests (she later recanted and apologized). Nearly two years later, that false claim is still a regular talking point for law enforcement and conservatives seeking to draw a correlation between Black Lives Matter protests, the $15 million cut from PPB’s budget in 2020, and the city’s subsequent rise in gun violence.

Mozyrsky, who describes his views on policing as nuanced, does not disagree with all of Hardesty’s ideas. Take, for example, his support of Portland Street Response. But people who have interacted with Mozyrsky in the criminal justice world say his stances on police accountability and reform are not particularly progressive.

“I think Vadim has always been on the side of giving the police the benefit of the doubt,” said Elliot Young, former PCCEP co-chair. “Ultimately, when you get into the details, his accountability would give a lot of leeway to the police. Vadim, in general, has been against redirecting resources from the police to alternatives.”

WW spoke to Mozyrsky about policing. Here are three key points from that conversation:

1. He thinks “bad apples” are to blame.

Asked whether he believes policing issues arise from systemic inequities or the actions of individual officers, Mozyrsky said there are “institutional problems that those handful of cops” perpetuate.

Last month, for example, Mayor Ted Wheeler fired former Portland Police Association president Brian Hunzeker, who leaked a police dispatch report that mistakenly identified Commissioner Hardesty as a suspect in a hit-and-run crash. PPB’s internal affairs unit had determined that Hunzeker’s actions were retaliatory, in part because he admitted during IA interviews that he was motivated by Hardesty’s longtime criticism of the police as well as the false claim she made during the Marie Claire interview.

Mozyrsky said he considers Hunzeker a “bad apple” rather than an indication of wider systemic, cultural or political problems within the Police Bureau. He added that he supported the mayor’s decision to terminate Hunzeker, and that doing so could help rebuild the community’s trust.

“You have bad doctors out there, and they get sued, and you have malpractice insurance, and those people get fines because of malpractice,” Mozyrsky said. “They might lose their license. But we don’t eliminate hospitals because there is a doctor that had malpractice. There’s things that we do to take out bad apples but make sure that things still function. And that’s what we need to do with the police.”

Jesse Merrithew, a Portland criminal defense lawyer, was skeptical of that argument.

“If he truly believes that all the problems in policing can be reduced to bad apples, then that should mean he also supports strong accountability measures with the removal of those bad apples immediately,” Merrithew said. “It’s just a deflection to say ‘bad apples.’ It’s a way to avoid taking on these greater, systemic problems that have existed for a long time with policing in America.”

2. He aligns closely with Commissioner Mingus Mapps.

WW asked Mozyrsky which of the five commissioners (including the mayor) he aligns with most closely on the Portland City Council.

“I’d say Mingus Mapps,” he said. Mozyrsky pointed to Mapps’ comments at a recent city budget hearing in which the commissioner advocated the hiring of 200 sworn officers and 100 public safety support specialists as an example of the “nuanced” approach he takes to policing.

Mozyrsky did not elaborate on the specific similarities between him and Mapps, who was endorsed by the PPA in 2020 and whose voting record on the City Council has been favorable to law enforcement.

Young said Mozyrsky’s support of Mapps “makes perfect sense.” Young adds: “He has not been in favor of the measures that people have brought to PCCEP that are actually about holding the police accountable.”

3. He believes disbanding the GVRT led to more homicides.

“I think there’s a correlation between cutting the GVRT and homicides,” Mozyrsky said, adding that if the unit hadn’t been cut, there would have been fewer murders.

Prior to the budget cut, Hardesty had been highly critical of the unit, formerly known as the Gang Enforcement Team, after a 2018 city audit found that 59% of the unit’s traffic stops were of Black people.

Mozyrsky argues the solution was not to dissolve the unit altogether, but to replace the bad actors with good officers, and discipline the former accordingly.

“There were accusations that they treated people disproportionately. And the way you work with that is, you fix it. If that’s the case, you make sure that you get those officers out of there—assign them something else, discipline them, whatever it might be,” he said.

Mozyrsky, who advocates community-style policing, said the GVRT played a key role in keeping Portland safe. “These [officers] were out in the community. They knew what the needs were, they knew who was involved and they kept crime from escalating—whatever that might look like. And then, because of objections, I think, on the part of Commissioner Hardesty, that unit was eliminated.”

Juan Chavez, a Portland civil rights lawyer, disagrees with the premise that more police officers mean less crime.

“Somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that the number line on a budget for the Police Bureau is the indicator of whether or not there’s crime. We don’t talk about law-and-order jurisdictions having higher crime rates, higher murder rates,” he said. “These things aren’t correlated. Low crime rates could look like New Zealand, or they could look like North Korea.”

Related: Vadim Mozyrsky’s neatnik persona makes him a perfect match for voters sick of a messy city.

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