Mayor Ted Wheeler fired police officer Brian Hunzeker Monday, after an investigation found that Hunzeker had broken bureau policy to leak information in retaliation against City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty.
Hunzeker formerly served as the president of the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) rank-and-file union, the Portland Police Association (PPA). Hunzeker stepped down from that role in late March 2021, shortly after PPB leaked information to the Oregonian and online conservative media outlets that falsely accused Hardesty of committing a hit-and-run.
An internal police investigation made public in December explained Hunzeker's connection to this incident. The investigation found that, on March 3, a 911 caller had incorrectly identified Hardesty as the suspect in a hit-and-run allegation. After learning of this, Hunzeker allegedly called a reporter to share the news of this alleged crime and then sent that reporter a copy of the 911 call transcript. Hunzeker told PPB investigators that this leak was made in retaliation, specifically for "Commissioner Hardesty’s false allegation about officers setting fires during the civil unrest," a claim that Hardesty made in 2020 and later apologized for.
Wheeler, who serves as Portland's police commissioner, explained his decision to fire Hunzeker in a recorded statement published Tuesday afternoon.
"As the investigation determined, Officer Hunzeker's actions amounted to retaliation against a democratically elected member of the Portland City Council due to her prior criticisms of the police bureau," Wheeler said. "Officer Hunzeker's actions harmed Commissioner Hardesty and harmed the community’s trust in the police bureau."
PPB Chief Chuck Lovell disagreed with Wheeler's decision. In a Monday email from Wheeler to Lovell, first obtained by Willamette Week, Wheeler implied that Lovell had previously suggested penalizing Hunzeker with a 12-week unpaid suspension from his job.
"With all respect to you as the chief, I cannot support a suspension in this case due to the harm caused by his conduct and the egregiousness of his actions," Wheeler wrote. "I therefore must direct you to change the outcome from a lengthy suspension to termination."
In a separate letter sent to Hunzeker Monday, Wheeler breaks down Hunzeker's violations in detail. The letter explains how, in the PPB investigation, Hunzeker admitted to using his city phone to leak a screenshot of the accusation against Hardesty to Oregonian reporter Maxine Bernstein.
"Your actions were in violation of Directive 310.70 – Dissemination of Information. You failed to treat the official business of the Bureau as confidential, and you disseminated the information related to an ongoing investigation to a person not authorized to have the information and outside of established procedures," Wheeler writes. "Additionally, you copied an official record from a police installation outside of established procedures. You provided the information to a member of the press, a person to whom it was not intended."
The letter also quotes a statement made by Hunzeker during the internal investigation, where he explains why he leaked the information to media.
"The underlying reason is my, I guess, young, naïve inability to manage a large organization, as such, and I made a bad decision on information that I had," Hunzeker is quoted saying. "My intent and my thought process was, if a public official is involved in a crime; that would have high public interest. My passing on of the information was to bring together hopefully a bilateral relationship with Maxine."
Hunzeker also told investigators that he shared the information to "advocate" for PPA members and build back the public's trust in police officers. Here's a statement from Hunzeker referenced in his termination letter:
"The community-type style policing that officers want to be engaged in, that I want to be engaged in, is almost met with a roadblock because now every officer that is responding to a call, there’s always that question of - from a statement of a public official, there’s always that question of is this police officer trustworthy? This - police officers cannot function to manage civil disputes or custodial disputes or domestic disputes if they’re not trusted. And without that trust, without that ability to do that, the police officers - everything they do and function and live for and come to work for is diminished. And so my job was to advocate for our members, so to make their well-being, to make their jobs safer in every way that I could."
Wheeler's letter mentions that he met with Hunzeker, and that Hunzeker expressed regret for his actions and said he had wanted to apologize to Hardesty personally.
Wheeler continued: "I must consider the extreme harm you caused and the significant impact your actions had on numerous people and the Bureau. I have balanced these differing points and I conclude that the extreme harm and significant impacts of your actions outweigh the mitigating factors that I considered. The range of allowable discipline is between a three work-week suspension and termination. Due to the egregiousness of this conduct, and the significant harm caused I have determined that termination is appropriate."
Hunzeker has the ability to appeal this decision through the PPA. Hunzeker could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday afternoon. However, current PPA President Aaron Shmautz said that the union "is actively reviewing the additional due process steps in place to remedy this mistake by the City."
"In firing Officer Hunzeker, the City has inappropriately turned accountability into punitive sanctions," Shmautz said in a press statement. "That is a step too far; one that is unsupported by facts, reason, and objectivity."
It's rare for a Portland mayor to fire an officer. The last time this took place was 12 years ago, when then-mayor Sam Adams backed a decision by then-PPB Chief Mike Reese to fire Ron Frashour, a PPB officer who fatally shot an unarmed Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis named Aaron Campbell in January 2010. Frashour's firing was eventually overturned by state arbitrators in 2012 who heard the PPA's appeal to Frashour's termination.
Hardesty filed a $5 million lawsuit against Hunzeker and the PPA in December over the leaked information that falsely implicated her. Hardesty's lawyer declined to comment on Hunzeker's termination Tuesday.