Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt has announced a new policy that will limit the types of charges pressed against protesters in Portland.
Schmidt announced at a Tuesday press conference that he is only pressing charges against protesters arrested for assault, theft, or property damage. That means he'll be dropping lesser charges that the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) often arrests protesters for, such as rioting, disorderly conduct, and "interfering with a peace officer"—a catch-all term for not following orders or bothering a cop. The policy will apply to all protest charges dating back to May 29, when the protests began.
"If we leverage the full force of the criminal justice system on individuals who are peacefully protesting and demanding to be heard, we will cause irreparable harm to them individually and to our society," Schmidt said in a prepared statement. "The prosecution of people exercising their rights to free speech and assembly in a non-violent manner takes away from the limited resources that we have to prosecute serious crimes and to assist crime victims."
Since protests against racial injustice and police brutality began over 75 days ago, PPB has faced scrutiny for arresting protesters, journalists, and legal observers who were nonviolently protesting or observing. Many videos from journalists show officers bull-rushing and arresting protesters who were following dispersal orders.
Here's the full list of charges that Schmidt's office will decline to prosecute when connected to protests:
• Interfering with a peace officer or parole and probation officer
• Disorderly conduct in the second degree
• Criminal trespass in the first and second degree
• Escape in the third degree
• Riot (Unless accompanied by a charge outside of this list.)
Additionally, charges of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer will be "subjected to the highest level of scrutiny by the deputy district attorney reviewing the arrest," according to a press release from the DA's office.
"Consideration will be given to the chaos of a protesting environment," the release continues, "especially after tear gas or other less-lethal munitions have been deployed against community members en masse."
Schmidt will also seek alternatives to jail or prison time for defendants whose crimes only cause financial harm—as with property destruction. Those alternatives include "restorative justice," in which the crime victim and defendant meet to decide on an appropriate way to make amends.
Schmidt said he got input on the policy from PPB Chief Chuck Lovell and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese. Schmidt tweaked the policy based on their advice, including allowing for riot charges to be pressed if they are accompanied by a felony that involves violence.
However, there's reason to believe the union that represents rank-and-file PPB officers won't support the new policy. The Portland Police Association sent a letter to Schmidt last week urging him to "hold the rioters accountable" and suggesting he was not keeping the community safe.
According to data shared Tuesday by the DA's office, the most common charge PPB levies against protesters is "interfering with a peace officer." That charge has been used 313 times since May 29. The most common felony charge is for rioting, used 44 times in that same period. PPB has charged protesters with misdemeanors 417 times, and charged them with 133 felonies. The vast majority of misdemeanor cases—352 of 417—did not cause bodily harm.
Schmidt was elected DA in May after running on a criminal justice reform platform, and took office on August 1. He was supposed to start his term in January, but took office early after former DA Rod Underhill resigned earlier this summer.
Kayse Jama, the executive director of racial justice nonprofit Unite Oregon, is part of Schmidt's transition team. Jama, speaking at a press conference Tuesday, said that the DA's office has historically "been used to perpetuate racial disparities." Jama praised Schmidt's new policy regarding protest charges, but added that "it’s not the policy itself, it’s the outcome of the policy."
“Freedom of assembly is important to me, as a former refugee from Somalia," Jama added. "That’s one of the reasons I came to this country."
Retired PPB Assistant Chief Kevin Modica is also on Schmidt's transition team. Modica, a Black man, pointed out at Tuesday's press event that policing's original purpose in the United States was to maintain chattel slavery.
"This [policy] is not anything to be afraid of," Modica said. "I’m talking to those in positions of power in law enforcement: You do your job. You don’t get to hold onto your arrest like a caged animal. You let it go through the criminal justice system. I encourage you all to have patience."