Mayor Ted Wheeler sits among Portland Police Bureaus top brass.
Mayor Ted Wheeler sits among Portland Police Bureau's top brass. Alex Zielinski

It didn't take long for the Portland Police Bureau's "listening session" with the public—meant to address concerning text messages between police and an alt-right leader—to go off the rails.

"Sit down! Nazi scum!" Yelled a faction of attendees just 15 minutes into the meeting, held in Northeast Portland's Maranatha Church. By the 30 minute mark, a scuffle broke out in the middle of the pews. An hour in, a woman associated with an alt-right group rushed the stage yelling threats at Mayor Ted Wheeler as her opponents chased after her, swinging punches.

None of this came as a surprise.

PPB chose to hold this event after transcripts of text messages sent between Lt. Jeff Niiya and Joey Gibson, leader of the Vancouver, Washington alt-right group Patriot Prayer, were made public last week.

The messages, obtained by the Portland Mercury through a records request, illustrate a relationship of trust and support that seems to go beyond regular police liaison protocol. The messages seem to validate a suspicion held by many members of the public: That Portland cops are more sympathetic towards Patriot Prayer than the liberal locals who regularly counter-protest Patriot Prayer rallies.

PPB is currently investigating whether Niiya violated any of the bureau's directives and Mayor Ted Wheeler has called for an independent investigation into bias toward members of the alt-right within the police bureau. But Thursday night's listening session was meant to be an opportunity for the public to share their concerns and solutions with Wheeler and PPB's top brass.

"It's time for us to hear you and be active in that. I want to be able to show that we're about what we say," said PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw, who sat at a table with Wheeler and PPB assistant chiefs at the front of the room. "Please know I am acknowledging this is a symptom of the mistrust that occurred over year and years and years between the community and the police. This is important to me. I'm not just saying this because it sounds good."

Outlaw asked the nearly 80 people who had signed up to speak to pair their comments with solutions.

The panel heard a variety of suggestions—ranging from "disband the police force" to "support our officers"—with little consistency. One person suggested that out-of-town members of Patriot Prayer be taxed for forcing Portland's police force to work during the group's protests. Another asked that PPB create a hate crimes task force to specifically focus on biased violence allegedly instigated by Patriot Prayer members.

One particular solution was mentioned by at least five different speakers: Have Wheeler step down as police commissioner and hand the responsibility over to city council's newest addition, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.

"We elected her to change our police department for the better," said one speaker. "I think she should be given the chance."

It's the same request that Portland's Democratic Socialists of America faction called for after the text messages were made public last week.

Hardesty did run on a platform of police reform—a response to Portland's history of police violence against people of color and those with a mental illness. Wheeler's made no indication he plans on forfeiting his job as the commissioner in charge of the PPB, a role that's historically been held by Portland mayors.

Like Outlaw, Wheeler didn't say much throughout the evening (except for replying to the question: "Ted do you want to kill me?" from a speaker with "No, I don't").

At least two people spoke about getting death threats after PPB made the Niiya-Gibson text messages and emails public, since PPB had not redacted their names from the transcripts.

"I'm here to let you know that you guys have actively put my life in danger," said one woman, address the panel. "Who am I supposed to call when I'm being threatened? I certainly can't call you."

Another woman echoed this complaint, asking Outlaw directly how she was supposed to trust her after hearing Outlaw make statements on the Lars Larson show about kicking protesters' butts.

"How could we possibly trust you?" she asked. "You are collaborating with right-wing white supremacists who have engaged in a two-year campaign against our city."

Many people who testified were interrupted by cheers or boos by activists—most of them representing left-leaning groups. Some of the negative interruptions ended in indecipherable yelling matches between people affiliated with Patriot Prayer and left-wing activists. (One example: Shouting variations of "No, you're the racist!" at each other across the room.) Despite the presences of PPB's top officials, it took intervention by church leadership to calm down the crowds.

"Don't boo him," said Maranatha's senior pastor T Allen Bethel at one point, after people accused a man of pushing them. "Just look at him and hold him accountable for his actions. He has to deal with his actions himself."

After one scuffle, an African American woman took the mic.

"First of all, this is a product of your forefathers," she said, addressing the majority-white crowd. "My family has been through this, my brother was beat up by a cop in the 70s. Northeast Portland has always been this. I need you guys to understand this. We have been crying this for years... I come to talk about the Black community that was replaced by you."

The session ended shortly after 8 pm, with around 50 people still waiting to speak. It's unclear if PPB plans on holding any similar sessions in the future.

Bethel, a longtime civil rights leader in Portland's African American community, sat patiently in the front pew throughout the evening session. He said he was happy to hold the tense discussion in his church.

"When you think back to the Civil Rights Movement, a lot of it happened in meetings inside churches. I chose to allow a place for the community to gather tonight to talk about the issues that brought so much tension in our community," Bethel said. "Oftentimes, we don't have a safe place for people to come together and talk. I get that people's passions get flowing, and sometimes can get a little over the top. But this shows me that there are people in the community who really want an opportunity to speak."