In January, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was chased and filmed through downtown Portland by a so-called “citizen journalist,” who shouted conspiracy theories at Eudaly as she walked six blocks to a meeting. It wasn’t the first time Eudaly had been publicly harrassed by this specific man—but she wanted it to be the last. Afterward, she met with the city attorney’s office to learn what legal actions she could take to protect herself.
“[I learned] that I would have to use my own time and financial resources to obtain a stalking order against someone, because of what my job is,” Eudaly explained at a recent city council meeting.
That’s no longer the case.
On March 20, city commissioners passed an ordinance allowing city attorneys to represent city employees—police officers, elected officials, and bureau staff—who are seeking stalking or restraining orders after having been threatened or harassed because of their job.
“We are increasingly seeing situations in which [people] are experiencing hostile, harassing, and even threatening behavior directed at them because of their role as city officials and employees,” City Attorney Tracy Reeve told commissioners before the vote.
The city attorney’s office already represents city employees in cases directly related to city business—maybe someone got in a crash while driving a city vehicle, or a cop gets sued for shooting someone—but it doesn’t address personal threats.
Yet those personal threats have begun to take a public toll. From racist emails clogging Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s inbox to threats of violence sent to Mayor Ted Wheeler via Instagram, elected officials have faced a rising tide of harassment from hostile members of the public.
“This behavior by a handful of people has limited the way I interact with the public,” said Eudaly at the March council meeting. “It makes me feel isolated and less connected to the community I am supposed to be representing.”
Such harassment hasn’t only impeded elected officials. City staff say they avoid lingering in City Hall corridors on days when council is in session, afraid that a particularly indignant visitor will take out their anger on anyone wearing a city employee badge. One member of Commissioner Nick Fish’s staff had to independently file a restraining order against a member of the public.
“I want to be able to assure my staff that it is not a safety risk to show up to the office,” said Hardesty at the meeting.
There’s no clear line between the legal protection that’s granted to the city’s few elected officials and Portland’s 10,000 non-elected employees. City Attorney Reeve said that distinction can become more apparent in court, when a judge considers the “reasonableness” of someone’s fears.
“Say you’re an elected official and someone is yelling at you during a city council meeting,” Reeve explained. “A judge may say that’s part of the job you signed up for.” But if, for instance, you’re out walking your dog and someone is harassing you about a city issue, a judge might take your concerns more seriously.
Having public dollars to support city employees’ cases, however, won’t make it any easier to obtain a stalking order or protective order. As with any victim of stalking or abuse in Oregon, the burden of proof is the victim’s responsibility. According to one city staffer, that means we won’t be seeing any immediate litigation against frequent harassers.
At least, the staffer added, “not yet.”