With a new opponent in city council, the future of Portland's ties with a controversial FBI taskforce is—again—up for debate.
"On the campaign trail, what I heard over and over again from people was their sense of insecurity, just walking around Portland," Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said at a community meeting Wednesday night. Removing Portland police from the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), Hardesty said, could be a major step toward repairing those community fears.
Portland has had an on-again-off-again relationship with the JTTF, a top-secret program that allows local law enforcement to share information with their regional FBI office, for more than a decade. Currently, the city has dedicated two Portland police officers to the taskforce, but neither the mayor nor the police chief are allowed to know what kind of projects the FBI has them working on.
Civil rights advocates have long raised concerns that the FBI could easily rope local officers into surveillance efforts that violate state laws—specifically, laws that prohibit police targeting people based on their ethnicity or religion alone. And now, those advocates have a dedicated ally on the city council. At the Wednesday forum, held at immigrant rights nonprofit Unite Oregon, Hardesty joined local civil liberty groups in decrying Portland's role in the JTTF.
"I feel very uneasy having city employees that are working for a federal government that has shown that its targeted immigrants and refugees," Hardesty said.
Hardesty entered Portland City Council with a primary goal to end the city's relationship with the JTTF. By replacing longtime JTTF fan Dan Saltzman at the council dais, Hardesty may have the votes needed to get the job done.
The FBI isn't thrilled about this plan. Earlier this week, Hardesty met with Renn Cannon, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Portland division, to hear the agency's arguments for remaining in the JTTF. According to Hardesty, Cannon and his colleagues explained that there are "very clear lines" between what the FBI does and what the police do on the JTTF. She wasn't convinced.
"We just don't know how much data the FBI is collecting, what they're doing with the data, and how they're using that data to have an impact on community members," she said. Hardesty said there's little proof that Portland's involvement in the JTTF makes Portland any more protected from terrorist threats.
Last year, former FBI investigator Michael German testified before city council in opposition of the JTTF partnership, alleging that the taskforce has explicitly targeted immigrants and communities of color. Hardesty said that instead of putting police resources toward supporting the FBI, the city should focus its attention on responding to overlooked and underreported hate crimes in the community.
The city has had a long and turbulent relationship with the JTTF. In 2005, under the leadership of then-Mayor Tom Potter, the city left the taskforce amid civil liberty concerns. In 2011, shortly after the FBI revealed a Muslim man had tried to bomb Portland's Christmas tree lighting ceremony (not without with the FBI's encouragement), the city was convinced the to re-join the JTTF on a case-by-case basis. Then, in 2015, the city council voted 3-2 to fully join the taskforce—with Commissioner Amanda Fritz and former Commissioner Steve Novick the dissenting votes.
Fritz, whose views on the JTTF remain unchanged, was the only other city council member in attendance Wednesday night.
According to Hardesty's staff, the new commissioner has pushed to get a JTTF vote before city council since entering office earlier this month. But, since the JTTF is a contentious issue with a complicated history in city hall, Hardesty doesn't want to rush it to a council vote without a public work session. The one person who's able to schedule a work session is Mayor Ted Wheeler, a vocal advocate for the JTTF.
"I believe remaining in the JTTF is critical to safety and wellbeing to all Portlanders, because it allows us to preempt potential violence," said Wheeler at a Thursday press conference. "There are others on city council who want to have a conversation about our involvement and I am certainly willing to do that."
Wheeler said he's "committed to a work session" that includes representatives from the FBI and Portland Police Bureau. He's considering allowing people who oppose the JTTF, like the ACLU of Oregon, to join the session. There's no set date for that work session, which will be open to the public but won't include public testimony.
If brought to a council vote, Commissioner Nick Fish is expected to stand by his previous vote to maintain Portland's ties with the taskforce. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, while skeptical of the relationship, has yet to indicate how she'd vote on the issue.