An Embattled Mayor Ted Wheeler Says He Won’t Surrender the Portland Police Bureau to His Critics

"I think we all understand that I’m a flashpoint for what I would describe as the extreme left and I’m a flashpoint for the extreme right."

Ted Wheeler knows you hate him.

Well, not all of you do. But Portland's mayor is hearing it from both sides: Progressives want to know why his cops are beating down protesters for racial justice while allowing right-wing demonstrators free rein. Conservatives claim Wheeler has allowed the city to descend into a fiery lawlessness.

The question for Wheeler, 58, who is seeking re-election in November, is whether a silent middle still exists in this city. And, more precisely, will that middle return him to office?

Wheeler is subjected to ceaseless rebuke by challenger Sarah Iannarone, as well as others who are running a write-in campaign for Teressa Raiford, a Black activist and founder of Don't Shoot Portland. He gets repeatedly cyberbullied by the president. His reelection campaign has raised little money, and he's struggled to articulate a good reason to keep him at the city's helm.

So we asked him why he still wants the job.

"I'm energized by these challenges," Wheeler replied. "I'm not daunted by them. I want to stick around."

We met with the mayor this week on Zoom to find out what he wishes he'd done differently over the 100-plus days of protests, to ask for his vision for the Portland Police Bureau, and to get him to describe a strategy for pulling Portland out of a war with itself.

His responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.

WW: Why not give the Police Bureau to Jo Ann Hardesty?

Ted Wheeler: I think we do better together. But I've had a number of conversations with Commissioner Hardesty about what she would like and what she would not like. She has been somewhat inconsistent about whether she wants to be police commissioner or not. And she also has made some statements that I think make it very problematic for her to be the police commissioner. She's accused the police of starting fires. She's accused them of other things. To her credit—and I really want to give her credit because I think she's an outstanding person—she quickly took that back and she apologized. But the damage is already done. There's a question of credibility.

She and I work really well together around police reform. And I have told her that, come January, when we impanel a completely new City Council, all bureaus are on the table. But right now, I do not think this is the time to be shifting the Police Bureau.

Why haven't you been physically present more often at protests?

I monitor all of them. I have a radio here, so I listen in on what's happening. But I have found that if I am actually there on the street, I immediately become a flashpoint. I think we all understand that I'm a flashpoint for what I would describe as the extreme left and I'm a flashpoint for the extreme right. My presence creates more public safety problems for local law enforcement and everybody there.

How do you explain to Portlanders what appears to be different treatment of the left and the right at protests?

There should not be any deferential treatment. Let's state that as a clear value: The police should not be engaged in politics at all. They should be completely agnostic to who is engaged in a demonstration. Their job is to target criminal activity. And that should be it relentlessly.

I know in the past they've been accused of favoritism in situations where, frankly, I know they were not engaged in favoritism. Last summer, on Aug. 17, when we had combating groups and a lot of alt-right organizations in Portland, one of those groups approached one of our protest liaison officers and said, "We want to get out of here. We want to go home." Which is exactly what we wanted them to do. They were being followed across the bridge. The decision was made by us, by Multnomah County, to raise that bridge to separate the groups and let the guys on the far right leave our city to eliminate the possibility of flashpoints. I supported that tactic. I thought it was a really smart strategy. There were very few acts of violence as a result.

But wouldn't you agree there is a widespread perception that the Portland Police Bureau has been treating protesters on the left differently from protesters on the right?

I agree there is that perception. There are undoubtedly people in a 900-member police force who do ally with and support the alt-right. But oftentimes what is being proffered as proof that the Police Bureau is collectively providing favoritism turns out not to pan out when you know the facts. That's how I call it.

What would happen if the police just didn't show up at tonight's protests or any protests in the future?

You know, they've tried that. It's worked on some occasions. People demonstrate peacefully. There's been some examples where it hasn't worked. I could be mistaken, but I believe the night that the North Precinct was attacked—somebody tried to light a fire there and ultimately people were barricaded inside—on that particular night, I believe the police were trying to have a minimal visible presence. And it just didn't work, because people saw a non-defended objective.

There are two criticisms of my leadership around demonstrations. One criticism is the police are heavy-handed and they're too engaged. The other is that the police are not engaged enough. The reality is somewhere in between. The police are getting better at investigative work after the fact [to find] those who were engaged in the most significant criminal destruction.

How do you respond to business and property owners who say protests damage Portland and its reputation? Some say it's going to take us five years to build ourselves back.

I think the more important question is protecting and expanding the brand of this city. That's probably the mayor's primary duty: to build on this incredible brand that we built up over decades. We're creative, we're inclusive, we're thoughtful. All of that has been overshadowed by the new way we are being branded globally, which is a city in chaos, a city of intolerance, a city where people don't seem to be able to get along very well. And I am deeply concerned about the damage to the city's reputation. We really need to have a thriving economy here to support our families.

I understand the frustration of business owners who've seen their businesses damaged, their customers unwilling to come in, their employees scared to show up. So the first thing we need to do is end the violence. Number two: Make sure we're actually cleaning up the city. That's litter collection. That's graffiti abatement. That's keeping our sidewalks clear. That's providing better, more humane alternatives for people who are currently forced to camp outside on our sidewalks and our public rights of way.

Is there any way to find common ground between people who support the police and people who support the protesters?

I think the only commonality I've seen between the far left and the far right is, they both agree that they hate Ted Wheeler. But the serious answer to your question is, I'll meet with anybody. I believe it's going to be the center that gets people to the table. Call for all of that energy that's been on the streets each and every night, come inside, and work on what you want to see changed. And the frustrating thing for me about those who've been engaged in the violence and the criminal destruction is, they don't seem to be clear about anything that they want.

The protesters are clear: They want $50 million removed from the police budget. It may not be something you want to give them, but it is a tangible demand.

I think people are conflating police reform with budget cuts and eliminating police services. I am not hearing from the vast majority of my constituents that they want less public safety. What I'm hearing them say is they want better public safety. That's more reflective of the community. That's more responsive to the community. And if I may be so blunt, they want policing services where Black people aren't shot or beat up. I do not support the idea of completely eviscerating our public safety system. What I support is making it work better.

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