New Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt Must Decide Who Faces Criminal Charges Amid Portland’s Protests

The county’s new top prosecutor begins on August 1.

Weeks before Portlanders started chanting, "Defund the police!" Mike Schmidt was elected to reform the prosecutors.

On May 19, the 39-year-old Schmidt won 77% of the vote for Multnomah County district attorney. Schmidt, who previously directed the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission and worked as a prosecutor for the county, ran on a platform of eliminating the state's cash bail system and appointing a hate-crime prosecutor. Even though he won handily over law-and-order candidate Ethan Knight, discussions of abolishing police departments were mostly relegated to activist groups in Portland.

Times changed—and fast. Criminal justice reform is no longer a niche topic. It is the topic of the moment, and Schmidt is tasked with proving he's the reformer he has portrayed himself to be.

Two weeks after Schmidt was elected, a crowd of people anguished and enraged by the killing of George Floyd smashed in windows and set fires inside the Multnomah County Justice Center—the very courthouse where Schmidt will soon prosecute criminal defendants.

Will the protesters who have thrown water bottles at police face jail time? That's Schmidt's decision. His predecessor, District Attorney Rod Underhill, resigned on June 16—essentially punting the hard decisions to the new guy.

The labor union that represents district attorneys in Multnomah county—the office has 75 lawyers that report to Schmidt—backed Knight in the election. It hasn't offered Schmidt a warm reception: Traci Anderson, the senior deputy district attorney and president of the Multnomah County Prosecuting Attorneys Association, resigned from her role unexpectedly July 7—the day after Gov. Kate Brown appointed Schmidt officially to his role.

And President Donald Trump recently deployed federal officers to the streets of Portland.

This week, we asked Schmidt what he'll do.

WW: Do you plan to drop charges against the protesters who've been arrested in the last six weeks?

Mike Schmidt: I'm not going to categorically say I will never prosecute this type of case or this type of charge. It's going to be case by case. It's going to be looking at: Is this potentially us suppressing speech? We should err on the side of not doing that and letting people express themselves. And then, once it gets over the line to really putting people in harm's way and danger, we're going to take those cases more seriously, like we would in any other type of situation.

Maybe there is enough evidence in this case, but does it serve a public interest? For some of these cases, it's not going to meet that test. I think people are out there exercising their First Amendment rights, and we need to respect that and guard that and protect that and cherish that as a democracy.

U.S. Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams doesn't share your progressive commitments—and federal officers are making arrests downtown. Are you concerned the feds will step on your turf and prosecute protesters?

There definitely are going to be philosophical differences. And there are also going to be times where it's probably in the best interest of our community on working together and making cases. I don't want to get into a situation where we are always at war. I think it benefits the residents of the county sometimes to be working together, and other times it'll be incumbent upon me to stand up for the values of this community and say we're not going to go along with that.

It's definitely not going to be my strategy to say, hey, I'm not prosecuting these cases so that the feds can do it. I need to work out what the relationship is.

I haven't had a chance to talk yet with Billy Williams. I think we both know going into that conversation that there's going to be some areas of disagreement and some areas of agreement.

Portland Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis recently called protesters "agitators." Do you agree with this characterization?

I don't like the idea of good protesters versus bad protesters. My focus is going to be on conduct. I think that when you look historically at this nation, it's during these protests when we've gotten some of the changes that we are proudest of in our nation's history. And sometimes it took some property damage. It took more than just peaceful protests to get the government's attention. I'm very mindful of that.

Are you expecting pushback from the DA's staff because your views might differ from theirs?

They are reacting to this moment in our community, just like everybody else is. We're all doing some soul searching, and the attorneys in that office are the same. They are thinking to themselves, "Have we been part of the problem and been blind to it? Are there things that we can do differently?"

What do you do when they revolt because you're a prosecutor who doesn't want to prosecute?

If I was to run into something like that, which I don't think I will, then you just go through the process of trying to help people transition to other work. Or [I'll] say, "Maybe this just isn't the job for you anymore," and hire a staff that is ready and willing. And I'll tell you, I've had many people reaching out to me excited about the prospect of a reform-minded district attorney.

Do you support police use of tear gas against protesters?

My problem with the tear gas is, you're using a mass tool that impacts everybody that's there, whether or not they're engaged in any kind of violent or tumultuous behavior. If they're just there exercising their First Amendment rights, they're equally getting gassed as everybody else is. I also understand that when you see things like buildings getting burnt and structures with people inside, sometimes you have to have some way to get a crowd dispersed. It just becomes untenable. So there's a fine line to walk there, but I would like to see a more toned-down, demilitarized response to a lot of the protests that we're seeing.

What is the biggest roadblock you see getting in your way of accomplishing criminal justice reform?

In this COVID-19 economy, resources are going to be a real challenge for a lot of the reform that I want to accomplish.

Sometimes we say, "Well, it takes $30,000 a year to incarcerate somebody in this state in prison." Incarcerating one less person, though, doesn't put $30,000 in somebody else's pocket. You have to close prisons, you have to close jails. That's the only way to actually realize that savings.

We didn't suddenly wake up and have all of these issues in our criminal justice system. I hope people understand that it's going to take more than a day to unwind a lot of these things. This is the Titanic, and it's going to take some time to turn this ship around.

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