PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE in Portland City Hall agrees that our cops' current casual relationship with the FBI's anti-terrorism agents hasn't worked out as officials hoped when they signed a case-by-case compromise with the feds back in 2011.
And as of last week, it seemed like a safe bet, among insiders, that Portland City Council would make the wrong choice when it comes to making things right. It looked like they were going to formally rejoin the region's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), instead of voting to definitively keep out like the city had (mostly) been doing since 2005.
You could understand why, at least under a certain line of thinking pushed by the feds and the Portland Business Alliance.
What if one day Portland joined Paris and Boston on a list of recent terror targets—and not with a fake attack, like the government-assisted Pioneer Courthouse Square bomb plot in 2010, but a real one? And what if not having cops embedded with the feds—sharing ground-level information—somehow allowed that to happen?
Thankfully, the odds in Portland City Hall might be shifting.
At a hearing last Thursday, February 5, the perils of FBI assistance (diminished trust in our cops because of religious, ethnic, and political profiling; questions about whether our cops would remain accountable to Oregon law) were painstakingly held up against the fear-flecked benefits listed by the feds (a grasping sense that our cops might actually influence FBI habits for the good, but notably no guarantees against attacks).
And some of those freshly aired risks might actually have resonated with the city commissioners whose votes matter most: Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick, both of whom loom as swing votes on a tightly divided council. (Commissioner Amanda Fritz has indicated she'd like to stay out; Commissioners Nick Fish and Dan Saltzman are both reportedly leaning toward getting back in the JTTF.)
Hales didn't return a request, left with his spokesperson, for comment on his presumably evolving thought process.
But Novick—in an interview in which he stressed he hadn't yet made up his mind—admitted he was troubled by something he'd learned: that the city's Arab and Muslim Police Advisory Council, a community-building gesture begun after September 11, had quietly faded away after 2011 thanks to creeping distrust.
He's right to be worried.
Advocates said signing back up with the feds—still unrelentingly feared in Arab and Muslim communities—would further increase that distance. Staying out of the JTTF, and taking steps to help Muslims feel more connected to the community, they argued, might actually make the city safer from homegrown terrorism.
But Novick also wouldn't dismiss the notion that Portland cops might sharpen local JTTF probes—based on their historically good relationships with Portland's Muslims. That's noble. But it assumes those ties, already fraying since 2011, would somehow keep from disintegrating. Which doesn't seem likely.
Attorney Thomas Nelson, speaking at the hearing, put a point on it. He asked why more Muslims weren't in the council chambers speaking out. Then he answered.
"They're not here because they're afraid," he said. "They need to trust the police, but they will not trust the police if the JTTF is involved."
Which is the best reason, among many, why Portland should stand strong and stay out.