In Two Lengthy Documents, Leading Portland Officials Point Fingers Over Who or What Caused a Crime Spike

In a preview of election-year fights, Rene Gonzalez and Mike Schmidt face off over the root causes of justice-system dysfunction.

Rene Gonzalez and Mike Schmidt. (Blake Benard)

A statistics-laden, 31-slide presentation documenting recent trends in Portland’s criminal justice system has provoked bitter debate after City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez shared it with top Multnomah County public safety officials last year.

The upshot of the presentation was unnerving: It suggests a shortage of cops, plummeting case clearance rates, and fewer convictions have led to fewer people being held accountable for their crimes.

The presentation, built by a retired prosecutor, is nearly a year old. But it gained wider attention Sept. 29, when Gonzalez emailed it to the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, a criminal justice forum attended by city, county and state leaders.

Six days later, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt responded with a 65-page rebuttal. It turned out Schmidt’s office had obtained the same presentation several months earlier and assigned an analyst to review it.

Schmidt said he was initially “alarmed” by the presentation, but ultimately concluded it was deceptive. “We encountered overwhelming evidence of bias and errors of approach at every turn, to such a degree that I would hesitate to characterize the original analysis as a trustworthy document,” he wrote in the Oct. 4 email response sharing the analyst’s report.

Chuck French, the former Multnomah County prosecutor who provided Gonzalez with the statistics, says Schmidt is dodging responsibility. By French’s telling, policymakers like Schmidt have shrunk the criminal justice system and triggered a crime wave. “His position is, correlation doesn’t equal causation,” French says. “OK, let the people decide.”

The presentation and Schmidt’s rebuttal, neither of which have been previously reported, provide an inside look into the effort to assign blame for the state of crime and justice in Portland going into an election year. Schmidt, perhaps the region’s most embattled public official, is up for reelection in May, while Gonzalez hopes to be elected mayor in November—and is backing Schmidt’s challenger, Nathan Vasquez.

Opinion polls show widespread sentiment among Portlanders that something has gone haywire. But the question underlying that unease is to what extent a spike in homicides and other high-profile crimes is the unintended result of a decade’s worth of criminal justice reforms or the temporary consequence of a system upended by a pandemic and social unrest.

Over the past year, Gonzalez has pushed the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council to change the tenor of its monthly meetings, which he says have traditionally focused exclusively on reform efforts rather than discussion of ongoing public safety issues. He tells WW he first provided LPSCC leaders and County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson with data in early 2023 in the hopes of spurring a policy debate, but there was “zero appetite” to discuss it at the time. (Pederson’s office denies this. A spokesperson shared an April 10 email from Pederson to Gonzalez saying she “looked forward” to talking with him about the data, which she said was “interesting” but that there was “context…I’d like to see added.”)

He pushed again in the September email, in which he said he’d met with the county’s top judge, Judith Matarazzo, and “discussed how best to recenter LPSCC, with a greater focus on deeper policy discussions and addressing community concerns about crime.” (Matarrazo tells WW she encouraged public scrutiny of the presentation, given concerns about its accuracy and possible lack of context.)

The result was an hourlong discussion of the data, as well as alternative metrics, at the council’s November meeting. Gonzalez says he was happy with the result: “I thought it was the most fruitful conversation we’ve had.”

WW obtained the original presentation, as well as Schmidt’s 65-page rebuttal. Here are a few points under contention:

TREND: Prosecutions are declining.

DEBATE: The presentation cites state data showing a decline in the number of criminal cases filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court, from more than 20,000 at the beginning of the last decade to less than 7,000 in 2021. And it’s not due to dwindling prosecutors; Schmidt’s office has enjoyed a rapidly expanding budget.

French says declining case numbers are the result of Schmidt following through on his promise to focus the office on violent crime—and, by extension, deprioritize low-level property and drug crimes.

Schmidt says it’s not his fault that police are bringing him fewer misdemeanor cases. Instead of judging his office by the total number of cases filed, he says, look at the “issuance rate.” That’s the percentage of cases referred to his office by police that prosecutors choose to pursue, which his office says is currently at an eight-year high for felonies.

TREND: Police are booking fewer people in jail.

DEBATE: So, why are police referring fewer cases to prosecutors? The presentation hints at one possible reason: The Portland Police Bureau’s clearance rate for property crimes, the percentage it solves, has plummeted from over 17% in 2009 to under 5% in 2021, the presentation says, citing FBI data. Meanwhile, the number of “self-initiated calls” has dropped by a similar margin, which the presentation implies is a result of sapping “officer motivation.”

Schmidt’s critics say he’s discouraged cops from bringing low-level cases to prosecutors. In other words, there’s no incentive for police officers to make arrests because they don’t believe Schmidt will pursue charges.

According to Schmidt’s report in reply, the reason cops aren’t solving crimes is because they’re short-staffed and too busy running to 911 calls. Meanwhile, the clearance rate for violent crimes has actually increased, the presentation notes. Plus, the decline started long before Schmidt’s tenure. “The decreasing trend in jail bookings over the last 20 years was caused by several social, political, financial, and environmental factors, not individual officer choice,” the report says.

TREND: Court cases are taking longer to resolve.

DEBATE: Another issue is that it can take years for people accused of crimes to face justice in the Multnomah County courts. The presentation alleges the county’s court system is the slowest in the state “by far” at resolving felony cases. In 2021, nearly half of felony cases in the county were over a year old, the presentation says, the highest proportion in the state.

In response, the DA’s report points out that court operations were slowed by the pandemic and have since recovered. Beginning in 2022, the court has begun resolving more felony cases than prosecutors opened, according to the Oregon Judicial Department.

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