The union representing the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) is—unsurprisingly—unhappy with how city commissioners have responded to news about Portland Lt. Jeff Niiya's friendly relationship with alt-right leader Joey Gibson.
"Our elected city officials tout 'fairness', 'transparency', and 'accountability' as cornerstones of city government," writes Portland Police Association (PPA) President Darryl Turner in a statement posted on the PPA's Facebook page. "Yet, with only a small piece of the facts in hand, City Hall has already rushed to judgment and condemned Lt. Niiya."
The Portland Police Commanding Officers Association (PPCOA), the union representing Niiya, has filed two grievances with Portland's human resources department against city commissioners—including Mayor Ted Wheeler—for making public comments criticizing Niiya last week. Wheeler appeared unfazed by the grievance at a Tuesday press conference, predicting the facts would "not bear out" to support the PPCOA's case.
On Thursday, reporting by the Mercury and Willamette Week detailed more than a years' worth of text messages sent between Niiya, one of PPB's public liaisons, and Gibson, the founder of Patriot Prayer, a right-wing extremist group based in Vancouver, Washington.
Among messages updating Niiya on the time and size of Patriot Prayer rallies coming to Portland (information that police officers regularly contact protest organizers about), Niiya shares information that appear to contradict PPB's own directives.
In some messages, Niiya warns Gibson—in the middle of a violent rally—about counter-protesters headed toward him, and offers the PPB's protection. In others, Niiya reminds Gibson that a fellow member of Patriot Prayer may be arrested if he comes to Portland, because of an active PPB warrant against him.
Shortly after the Mercury and Willamette Week made these texts public, Wheeler released a statement deeming the text messages "disturbing," and called for an internal and external investigation into the existence of bias in the actions of the PPB regarding alt-right and anti-fascist (or, antifa) protesters. Wheeler also reiterated that PPB officers will soon be trained on how to identify white supremacy, a decision the city council voted on in early February.
Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty also issued statements chastising the PPB for allowing Niiya to engage in such a supportive, protective relationship with a member of the alt-right.
In the union's workplace harassment complaint, first reported on by the Oregonian, the PPA argues that these comments "were derogatory and hostile and damaged Lieutenant Niiya's professional work environment." The PPCOA also signaled its intent to file a separate grievance based on its contract with the city, which stipulates that police supervisors are reprimanded in a way "least likely" to publicly embarrass the officer.
"The union has every right to file those grievances," Wheeler said at the Tuesday afternoon press conference. "I think ultimately the facts will not bear out on the case they're trying to make."
Wheeler said that Niiya is certainly entitled to due process through investigative process. But, he stood by his initial statements about the Gibson text messages.
"We're talking about an individual who comes from Vancouver, Washington to Portland who has a history of holding events that incite violence," said Wheeler, referring to Gibson. "A leader of a movement whose rallies attract both white supremacists and neo-Nazis."
"While I completely understand that the goal of the police liaison is to try to develop rapport with anyone who identifies as a leader or organizer, regardless of content of event, the text messages are still concerning for a number of reasons," Wheeler continued. "For example, what is the value to policing offering advice on how to avoid arrests regarding someone who has an active warrant outstanding? Is that standard police strategy?"
Wheeler said that an outside, independent investigation into PPB should answer these questions. He is not certain who the city will select to conduct that investigation or when that investigation will begin.
PPA's Turner has also called for an investigation—but one that focuses on whether Wheeler knew about Niiya's text messages with Gibson prior to last week's reporting.
"My gut feeling is that we will find out that the Mayor’s office, as part of the strategic planning team, knew about the strategy behind and context of Lt. Niiya’s communications with Patriot Prayer and other organizations," Turner wrote on Facebook. "Pushing out sensationalized soundbites and one-sided stories ahead of an investigation does a disservice to our citizens and our rank and file officers."
PPB has scheduled a listening session on Thursday, February 21 at 6 pm to allow the public to share their concerns related to PPB's relationship with alt-right groups.
Editor's Note: This story originally identified the union representing Lt. Niiya as the Portland Police Association, when it is the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association. We regret the error.