A YEAR AGO, Facebook posts had Portland police on high alert.
On the night of February 24, 2015, a man named Quintrell Holiman shot at two officers who'd tried to talk to him near an East Portland strip club. Holiman—26 years old, with gang affiliations and a federal arrest warrant—then fled, killing himself after being cornered in a backyard.
It wasn't long before the man's friends were questioning cops' version of this story on social media. They didn't buy that Holiman had taken his own life, and they were angry.
"People associated with this man are talking about killing cops," Portland Police Bureau (PPB) spokesperson Sergeant Pete Simpson told KGW at the time.
Back then, the bureau responded to the threats by assigning more officers to its gang enforcement team. But if a new law flying through the state legislature passes, they might address similar situations with a controversial move: trying to shield the names of officers involved in the incident.
Under House Bill 4087, police agencies throughout the state would have the ability to keep secret the identity of any officer for at least three months, provided they can show a judge a "credible threat of present danger" to that officer stemming from a specific occurrence.
The bill was inspired by a singular event: the shooting death of anti-government militant LaVoy Finicum on an Eastern Oregon highway in late January, and the apparent threats of violence that have followed in its wake. But local police observers worry that the proposed law could have widespread effects at a time when calls for police transparency are stronger than ever, thanks to high-profile incidents like the shooting deaths of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown.
"America should keep [officers'] names public until laws, policy, and directives change to suit a public safety system that values all lives," says Teressa Raiford, a key figure in the group Don't Shoot Portland, who spoke with Democratic leaders about the bill last week. "We aren't even close."
Under HB 4087, a police department that perceives a threat to a cop can ask a court to withhold identifying information about that officer from the public. A judge has to rule on that petition, out of public view, within five business days. If it's approved, the officer's identity can be shielded for 90 days, after which the police department can argue for an extension.
The bill was filed in rushed fashion after Oregon State Police (OSP) killed Finicum, an Arizona rancher who'd been part of the armed militant group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Federal officials have said Finicum reached for a handgun after hopping out of his vehicle following a car chase on January 26—an account video footage appears to corroborate.
State law enforcement desperately wants to keep the names of the troopers involved in the shooting under wraps. At a legislative hearing about the bill on February 8, OSP Superintendent Rich Evans regaled lawmakers with accounts of police being harassed and followed by militants over the course of the Malheur standoff.
"As soon as we release the names of the troopers involved in [Finicum's death], they will be targeted," Evans said. "Their families will be targeted."
That reasoning was enough to spur state Representative Jeff Barker to commandeer a public safety bill already in the works, gut it, and insert the identity protection language at the OSP superintendent's behest.
"He said there was a very real threat," Barker tells the Mercury, adding that he didn't ask Evans for details.
Barker, a retired Portland police lieutenant and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, says he expected a "shit storm" when he introduced the bill. Instead, the legislation's had a relatively easy path. It passed out of Barker's committee after two short hearings, then passed the House with an overwhelming majority less than a week later.
But the issue hasn't flown completely under the radar. When Portland activists disrupted the Oregon Legislature with loud demonstrations last week, concern over HB 4087 was one of their chief motivations, Raiford says, though the event was painted in reports as largely driven by the minimum wage debate.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon (ACLU) also raised concerns, as ACLU chapters around the country have with similar legislation. But the organization changed its stance to "neutral" after winning concessions that cut the amount of time an officer's name can be shielded (from no limit to three months), require tangible evidence of a threat, and allow a cop's identity to be released if someone sues over the incident that spurred a threat.
Kimberly McCullough, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon, says the bill is now narrow enough to ease her organization's qualms.
"This is addressing only a very specific situation, which is when [officers] have actually received a specific and credible threat," McCullough says. She adds, though, that concerns over the bill are "valid because this issue does come up frequently in connection with officer-involved shootings around the country."
Right now, if a Portland officer shoots somebody, the public can expect to know that officer's name in relatively short order. Police directives say the PPB should release the names of officers "after a minimum of 24 hours" following a shooting, and it's usually not much longer than that.
Police accountability advocates worry HB 4087 will change things. They theorize cops could hold off on releasing an officer's name while gauging whether a threat exists. Even with scant evidence of danger, advocates say police could petition to protect an officer's identity to delay its release after a controversial shooting.
"If it's an officer who's been involved in this kind of incident before, we need to know that," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch. "The officers get a couple of days on leave, then they're back on the street with their guns."
Mark Chasse agrees. Chasse's brother, James, sustained injuries that eventually took his life when Portland police tackled him in an infamous 2006 arrest. He thinks HB 4087 is driven by an obsession with secrecy, and he notes the bill is being pushed by the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs. The lobbying group's president, Daryl Turner, is also president of Portland's rank and file police union, the Portland Police Association.
"While it is not clear to me exactly why this bill was even seen as necessary—especially when it's not clear that anything short of passing a law was even attempted in court or otherwise—it would seem to be very high on the regular legislative wish list of the Portland Police Association and other paid advocates for law enforcement," Chasse said in an email. "The fact that its passage is proceeding rapidly with little notice, discussion, or scrutiny makes this even more disturbing."
For its part, the PPB isn't speculating much on what HB 4087 could do. Simpson tells the Mercury it's possible police would hold names longer "if the nature of the incident indicated that there might be credible threats to an officer and/or family...." He says the bureau hasn't withheld an officer's name in the six years he's served as spokesman, but that credible threats against officers do happen. Scenarios like the Facebook posts from last year, for instance, "could serve as a catalyst for withholding names," Simpson says.
As for HB 4087, its future has grown a bit murkier since it passed the House. As of press time, it was sitting in the Senate's Rules Committee with no hearing scheduled. A spokesman for Senate Democratic leaders said he couldn't comment on the bill's chances.
Barker believes it'll make it to the governor's desk—probably with a sunset clause that would kill the provision at some point.
Then again, he says, "I killed a bill today that was important to a senator, so maybe they'll do something to me."