Mike Schmidt, Portland’s Embattled Prosecutor, Rises to His Own Defense

“I grade myself, quite frankly, very highly,” he says.

Mike Schmidt (Mick Hangland-Skill)

Mike Schmidt says it’s not his fault.

The unacceptable homicide rate, the shootings, the open-air drug dealing, the chronic offenders caught and released—the Multnomah County district attorney gets blamed for them all.

Schmidt, 42, reads the same lurid headlines as everybody else in Portland, and in an on-the-record interview with WW’s editorial staff, he readily acknowledges that the criminal justice system in Multnomah County is as busted as a Subaru Outback stripped of its catalytic converter. He just doesn’t believe that any of this trouble comes from the decisions he has made as the county’s top prosecutor in the 38 months he has been in office.

To hear Schmidt tell it, he’s about the only guy left doing his damn job. “We’re holding more people accountable,” he says. And when asked to evaluate his term in office, he gave himself an A. “I grade myself, quite frankly, very highly,” he says.

In a wide-ranging interview in WW’s offices last week, Schmidt touched on his rising budget, his rival down the hall, and the trafficked teenagers dealing fentanyl on downtown Portland street corners. Overall, he came across as well intentioned but perhaps miscast—elevated to a role that’s been altered by events far outside his control. Schmidt ran for DA to make Portland’s criminal justice system more fair. After three years of violence and disorder, voters just want someone to make it work.

Schmidt, a small-town kid from upstate New York, got a degree at Vassar, a liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie. Soon after came a law degree from Lewis & Clark. Schmidt, a talented dart thrower with a penchant for craft beer, made Portland home and did a six-year stint as a deputy district attorney for Multnomah County. (His most serious cases, he says, were robberies, burglaries and traffic fatalities.) In 2015, Schmidt was hired to lead the 20-member staff of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, a sort of state think tank that helps steer Oregon’s public safety policies.

In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, he ran a successful campaign for DA on promises to shrink Multnomah County’s criminal justice system. He billed himself a reform-minded, progressive prosecutor, attaching himself to a growing national movement that believes the best way to reduce incarceration is from the most powerful perch inside the system. Schmidt’s platform included eliminating cash bail, ending mandatory minimum sentences, and refocusing the office away from misdemeanors and toward more violent crime.

On May 19, 2020, Schmidt was swept into office with 77% of the vote. On May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer, amplifying the calls for reform.

Times changed. Shootings in Portland have tripled since 2019. (By comparison, Seattle’s number more than doubled during the same period.) And progressive prosecutors like Schmidt are taking the heat. In San Francisco, Chesa Boudin was recalled. Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner was impeached.

Fifty-seven percent of Multnomah County residents say Schmidt’s doing a bad job, according to a poll commissioned earlier this year by People for Portland, a political advocacy group that wants him gone.

Worse, perhaps, he seems to struggle to manage what amounts to one of the largest law firms in the state. His prosecutors say they’re not getting sufficient training, and the state issued a report saying it found “substantial evidence” of discrimination against a female employee—a real embarrassment after a report his office paid for vindicated him.

In seven months, Schmidt faces reelection and, already, he’s picked up a challenger from inside his office who claims Schmidt’s policies have allowed criminals to sell fentanyl and assault vulnerable Portlanders without fear.

In Schmidt’s telling, however, he’s one of the most successful elected officials in the region. He’s grown his office’s budget (by 30% in the past three years), launched a handful of innovative new programs, and presided over a recent encouraging decline in crime—even though, as he points out, crime rates are a bad indicator of his success or failure.

And, Schmidt argues, he’s doing it all at a time when police officers take two hours to arrive at crime scenes, public defenders are scarce, and fentanyl mows through downtown like a wheat thresher.

In a conversation with WW’s newsroom that lasted nearly 90 minutes, Schmidt proved himself to be nimble. He was polished, unflappable, and quietly defiant.

What follows are highlights from our conversation with the most embattled politician in Portland.

WW: Is it fair to use crime rates as a gauge of how well you are doing?

Mike Schmidt: What the district attorney can do to try to alter the trajectory of crime rates is: not a lot.

There is a billboard downtown that makes fun of your last name. Let’s say that you had a billboard downtown.

What would my billboard say? Right now, the billboard would talk about the falling crime rates across the board in Portland. We’re seeing in every single category, crime is coming down. And I think that’s a message that people don’t get, and that they need to get. [Reported crime is up overall since Schmidt took office, but has declined in recent months. As of August, this year’s homicide count is on track to be slightly lower than last year’s record high. Car thefts, in contrast, have plummeted from around 900 per month last summer to about 600 a month this summer. —Ed.]

You just said that the crime rate is not a fair way to judge your performance.

I agree with that. But as long as I’m going to get blamed for the crime rates going up, I’d like to advertise that the crime rates are going down.

So what’s the best data by which to judge your success?

People like to go to the total case count and say, well, the total number of cases you’ve issued is way down. Well, that’s true because we’re getting so many fewer misdemeanor cases referred to our agency. But we’re prosecuting more felonies. And the cases that we are prosecuting are more complex. And our issuance rate, the percentage of the cases we receive from police officers that we end up charging, is at a seven-year high.

So why are you getting fewer cases?

We’re seeing dramatically fewer cases come from the Portland police. This is particularly true of misdemeanors.

The traffic unit was disbanded, and we saw a massive decrease in traffic crimes being referred to our agency.

Another area we saw a big drop is thefts. I asked the chief what’s going on here? It’s a mixed bag of reasons. Police have been stretched thin dealing with violent crimes. And there’s been a shift in policy across the country of retailers, especially big-box stores, telling their employees not to stop shoplifters and put themselves in harm’s way. The other big change comes from possession of controlled substances, which is no longer a misdemeanor.

Do you think that any of this is because the Portland police are on a sort of strike?

I don’t. And I appreciated the chief when he sent out an email to his officers and said, “Hey, stop telling people the DA won’t prosecute. It’s not true.”

But it does make me upset when I see people who are paid to do the work not necessarily doing everything they can to serve the community.

Shortly after you took office, you announced that you weren’t going to prosecute hundreds of people arrested during the George Floyd protests. This is often brought up as evidence that you’re soft on crime, even though similar decisions were made by prosecutors across the country. So, do you have any regrets about dropping those charges—or making such a big deal about doing it?

When I came into office, we had over 500 cases on my desk. The vast majority of these cases were arrests for people who were told to leave and they didn’t. So I said, look, we’re going to focus our resources on the people who are committing harm, but we’re not going to prosecute people for being there. Nationally, that pretty much was the approach of most major cities.

I wish I would have had three or four years of run-up to make a decision like that. But, at the time, it was the right thing to do.

I think that is part of what has set me off on the wrong foot with a lot of law enforcement. We still have the scars of 2020 in our community in Portland, and I think the police had a really awful year. Some of the things that people said to them as they were doing their jobs to protect the community were just not acceptable. And I think the community had a really hard year. We’ve seen after-action report after after-action report coming out talking about the use of force and the harm and damage it did to our community. Those scars are still very, very deep.

What grade would you give yourself so far?

I grade myself, quite frankly, very highly. I’d say A. This has been the toughest three years in the history of Multnomah County to be the district attorney. A pandemic, civil rights, gun violence, fentanyl hitting our streets, defense attorney crisis, a state hospital that’s overflowing. There have just never been more challenges. And yet, I ran to do something, which was to try to change the way that our system thinks about incarceration and disparity in the system, and to build trust in terms of fixing wrongful convictions. And we’ve been doing all of those things.

At the same time, I inherited an agency that had seen 15 years of decline in terms of staffing and investment from the county, and we’ve been able to change that trajectory. It’s been incredibly hard work—and still our prosecution rate’s increasing. We’re setting up interventions that are responsive to the challenges in our community, like the Auto Theft Task Force, where now, in 2023, car theft is down over 20%.

Several employees in your office have made complaints about the workplace. A report by a law firm paid for by your office says there’s nothing to see here, and then the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries issued a report in July finding “substantial evidence” of gender discrimination and retaliation against a woman in your office. Did your office cover it up?

No. I was also surprised when BOLI made those findings after a much less exhaustive and rigorous process.

Do you believe BOLI’s findings of gender discrimination in your office are wrong?

Yes, absolutely. One hundred percent.

Where could your office improve?

Areas where we need to improve are training and onboarding of staff. We’ve got a lot of newer attorneys, as we both grow and as we saw some turnover happen—when I took over and during the pandemic. We’re confronting old realities, but maybe they’re more pronounced now, about staff wellness. We deal with incredibly traumatic content on a regular basis. And we’re realizing that that really burns a lot of folks out.

Do you believe the people selling fentanyl downtown are themselves victims of human trafficking?

I do. We’ve seen juvenile Hondurans. And, of course, our concern, especially when you’re talking about juveniles, is that they’re being run up here. And it’s intentional. They know our laws. They know that we put an emphasis on trying not to lock kids up for crimes. So I think that they are intentionally exploiting those laws with young people from Honduras.

It seems that a lot of people are committing crimes in Portland while awaiting trial for crimes they already committed. What are you doing about it?

It’s frustrating to see somebody arrested for a crime who has failed to appear [in court] multiple times previously. A lot of it has to do with our lack of defense attorneys. When a person is in custody and there isn’t a defense attorney available, the judge is letting them out.

Do you believe more people should be sitting in jail awaiting trial in Multnomah County?


But aren’t you part of the problem? You campaigned on eliminating cash bail—and you helped push recent legislation that limited its use. Do you have any regrets about that?

No. How much money you have should not dictate whether or not you are released. We should be looking at risk.

At the time, you also promised to lobby for more money for supervision services to ensure people who have been charged with a crime but released don’t commit more crimes. How’s that going?

We do not have enough services to monitor people successfully.

Have you lobbied the county to fix this?

We’ve talked about it. [Since fiscal year 2021, when Schmidt took office, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office’s budget has increased 30%. During the same period, the budget for the Department of Community Justice, which runs the county’s supervision programs, increased 4%. —Ed.]

You’re facing a challenger in next year’s election, Nathan Vasquez, a prosecutor inside your office. How would an office under Nathan be different from yours?

You’d have to ask Nathan. You know, what I can tell you about Nathan is that when I was elected, he endorsed Ethan Knight [the federal prosecutor who ran against Schmidt] and was very public about that. He stayed on and has not left. Although, obviously, he is critical of things, he’s not been critical of those things internally. We have a very robust process internally for attorneys to bring ideas to the district attorney. He’s never come to propose anything.

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