The 56 Portland police officers and 22 Multnomah County Sheriff's deputies who were federally deputized last week will likely stay deputized through the end of 2020. The news that federally deputized officers are here to stay brings a new level of federal influence over local Portland law enforcement—and adds an element of uncertainty over how protests will be policed moving forwards.
While Mayor Ted Wheeler called on US Attorney for Oregon Billy Williams to reverse the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and Multnomah County Sheriff's Officer (MSCO) officers’ deputized status, Williams declined to do so Wednesday, saying he wanted to protect the officers policing protests.
“Law enforcement and law-abiding citizens of Portland have endured months of nightly criminal violence and destruction,” Williams said in a statement Wednesday. “Federal cross-deputation… underscores the importance of providing accountability and deterrence for these criminal acts.”
For Juan Chavez, an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center who is working on several lawsuits associated with police misconduct at protests, the Williams’ refusal to cancel the cross-deputation is “pushing the envelope as far as what is acceptable in a federalist country.”
“We are designed to allow local matters to be handled by local governments, and we take care of each other,” Chavez added. “What they’re pushing right now is a constitutional crisis, frankly.”
The deputized local officers are now considered federal officers, meaning protesters accused of throwing objects at or being violent with those officers can be charged with assault of a federal officer, which carries a stiffer criminal penalty than assaulting a local cop. That’s the main reason why the officers were deputized ahead of a Proud Boys rally and counter-demonstrations last Saturday.
Chavez worries that distinction will prompt the officers to abuse that new level of authority.
“What’s bizarre about this strategy is that it only perceivably benefits the Portland police officers who are deputized,” he said. “They can basically report anytime they get a paper cut, and try to charge protesters with assault on a federal officer.”
Chavez said it’s also possible that the federally deputized officers could arrest people suspected of federal crimes that are not considered crimes in the state of Oregon. That could range from cannabis possession to being an undocumented immigrant.
“I think the hard part for me right now is—how would you stop them from doing that?” Chavez said. “Lawful or not, how would you stop them?... They’re all too willing to push that envelope.”
Currently, PPB is under temporary restraining orders preventing them from interfering with journalists or legal observers at protests. [Editor's note: The Mercury is one of the plaintiffs in in that lawsuit.] Chavez said that those restraining orders still apply to deputized officers, because they remain City of Portland employees. But he said he also worries about the chasm between what’s strictly legal, and what a federal deputation might emboldened officers to do despite its legality.
“If they’re operating under the assumption that [the restraining orders] don’t apply, it doesn’t help us in the near term,” he said. “The courts are a place of remedy after an incident, most often. We did all the preliminary things we could do… but where we’re at right now requires leadership, to tell your officers to stop violating the law.”
The officers’ deputized status is set to expire at the end of the year—nearly two months after the November presidential election. In the meantime, Chavez said, “The city needs to do everything they can to reverse this.” But it isn't clear how that can happen.
“This is right out of the fascist coup playbook,” he said. “It’s not subtle in the least.”