Ted Wheeler on Portland Police Pepper-Spraying Protesters: "It Didn't Look Good."

Wheeler says he'll make reforms to the Police Bureau, even though the union contract is inked.

Last week, WW gave Portland's mayor-elect, Ted Wheeler, a pop quiz on a range of policy issues facing the city. But we also had time for some longer discussions.

Among the topics discussed: police reform.

Wheeler told WW the Portland Police Bureau is the city department most in need of reform (in a tie with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), and that he, like Hales, will continue to oversee the bureau himself instead of assigning it to another commissioner.

He also discussed the pepper-spraying of demonstrators protesting the new police union contract in October, and whether cops were wrong.

Related: Portland police deploy pepper spray on protesters in City Hall melee.

Wheeler's oversight of how police interact with protesters is likely to be an early test for the new mayor.

Activists are planning large downtown rallies Jan. 20 against the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. The marches will almost certainly revive efforts to shut down interstate highways, and police want to avoid a repeat of the vandalism that marred six nights of anti-Trump protests in November.

Related: Anti-Trump marches devolve into chaos as masked anarchists smash windshields and windows.

Here's what Wheeler had to say.

WW: Tell us why you're keeping the Police Bureau under your portfolio.

Wheeler: Yes, I've been very clear from the beginning of the campaign that I'm going to hang on to the Police Bureau. And I'm frankly not sure anyone else wants it. Nobody has asked for it. It's super important and obviously rebuilding that trust with the community is something that I'll be held accountable for whether I assign it to someone else or not. So I'm going to hang onto it.

Do you see a mechanism for instituting greater accountability, even though the contract was signed?

So the contract was signed. Prior to the signing of the contract there were basically ten broad categories of reforms that I would like to see. They are based on feedback that I've received from the community. They are based on feedback I've received from activists, based on my own observations, [and] based on national best practices around police accountability. And as you know there's been a lot of national discussions about police accountability, building trust. The contract fulfilled one of those ten, so we've got some work to do. Some of the accountability mechanisms have to be negotiated and bargained for. Example: As mayor, as police commissioner, I would like to have the final say on the HR issues. That currently is not something I cannot exercise.

So are you going to be reopening the contract?

I think we have work to do first. The city council approved the contract. It gave the police chief and the police union the tools that they said they needed to improve recruitment and retention. And now I'm going to hold them accountable for it.

I'm going to do a national police search, I've already been very public about this. I've spoken to the police chief [Mike Marshman] about it, and he agrees that it's the right strategy. The public is aware we are going to commence with a national police search. it will be a public process and I understand some people may not choose to participate in the process, and I'm okay with that.

Did police officers make a mistake by pepper-spraying demonstrators on the steps of City Hall?

You know, that's the kind of question I don't know the answer to, and I'll tell you why. I don't know what happened prior to that, and I don't know the context.

I saw the video. The video didn't look good. It's not the kind of video that when you put it out in the community it engenders warm and fuzzy feelings about our police bureau or their ability to mediate or deescalate a situation. But as many people cautioned me, that may have been the eighth chapter, and I missed the first seven chapters. I wasn't in City Hall. I didn't see what went on in City Hall. I don't know what went on in City Hall. I've heard conflicting stories, so I don't think it's really appropriate for me to sit here now having viewed a YouTube video and say that I know what the right answer was.

You know, I will say it didn't look good, and if I had been the mayor, I'm not, I would have tried to explain to the community what the broader context of that was. Nobody stepped forward. I've heard internally that there was more to that than what the public sees in the YouTube video. But I've heard no clear description of what that is. I've heard nothing from the mayor or City Hall. What was going on there?

And I think this is part of the dynamic we have in the city of Portland. Nobody knows. The public isn't included in these conversations. What's going on? And if we screw up on something, be honest about it.

I believe people are ready now for an adult conversation. They want more information. Five years ago if you were an elected official and you screwed up on something, that was the end, right? People were done with you.

I think people have now heard the narrative about government not working long enough that they're interested in a different narrative.

Now the question is, if you screw up on something, why did you screw up? What did you learn? What would you do differently? How has this shaped or reframed the conversation, or reshaped and reframed the policies that you were going to enact?

When something happens, and it looks to be a certain thing, and then nobody steps forward to give us, as members of the public, information, I think it just leaves us with our worst fears realized. We don't know what happened. It looked bad, and without an alternative narrative and alternative description, that's what people walk away with—one more example of what appears to be an overly aggressive stance on the part of the police bureau. And I think that's too bad.