Hall Monitor is a regular column on issues related to Portland City Hall and its influence on the community it serves.
The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) has been on the defensive for more than a year.
In the face of funding cuts, program closures, legal penalties, and the public’s general disdain, the bureau has painted itself a victim in the aftermath of a racial justice uprising that centered on police abuses. While PPB has its clear apologists—the opinionated police union, fearful neighborhood groups, and Mayor Ted Wheeler (AKA Portland’s police commissioner)—there are others in positions of power who’ve used less obvious channels to show their support of Portland’s cops.
A recent journey through the city’s labyrinthine public records system has revealed other ways city employees and county attorneys have quietly worked to defend PPB.
It begins with a simple public records request. In 2018, I asked the city’s Bureau of Human Resources for a list of ZIP codes and the corresponding number of PPB officers that live in each area. My request was fulfilled promptly, and I reported on how many Portland officers live in the city they are sworn to protect and serve.
In January 2021, I decided it was time to update that statistic. So I made the same request to the Human Resources office as I had three years’ prior and, weeks later, received the data.
But something was off: The city only gave me the number of officers living in each ZIP code if that same ZIP was home to more than five officers. If it was five or less, the tally was entered as the range “1 to 5.” This rendered my data useless, since my mission was to report on the exact percentage of officers residing in each area. I wrote to the Bureau of Human Resources, asking for the actual number, and got this response: “For both privacy and personal safety reasons, if data regarding an employee’s personal residence is small enough so that it could identify where a specific employee resides–we can only report out information as we presented it–as 5 or less residents.”
At first, I was annoyed by this improbable excuse. I can’t imagine any scenario where someone could be easily tracked down because they are one of two people living in the same ZIP code. The city said it was exempt from providing the full data under a section of the state public records law which prohibits the disclosure of a person’s home address if it would create a threat to public safety.
This explanation insulted me. As someone who has had my personal information shared online by right-wing trolls, I take personal safety protections seriously. I certainly understand why Portland police officers wouldn’t want their addresses made public, and appreciate that their employers seemed to understand, too. But, by conflating a single ZIP code with an entire address, I felt the city was abusing the protections allowed under the state law in a way that diluted the purpose of those very protections. Perhaps the city’s Human Resources staff felt emboldened by the 2020 PPB directive allowing officers to cover their name tags on uniforms during protests out of privacy concerns. Or maybe staff wanted to demonstrate to PPB that they were willing to pose bizarre arguments to keep officers’ information private.
Whatever the reason, it was enough to convince me to file my first-ever appeal to a records request denial.
In my appeal letter to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s (MCDA) office, I explained why I didn’t believe that the city’s chosen exemption applied in my case. The city, which was allowed to respond to my appeal, doubled down on their original argument, using this hypothetical situation as evidence:
“An individual might have generic information about where Officer XYZ lives by information posted online about officers, following the officer after a shift, [or] a general description on social media, etc. If the individual knows generally that Officer XYZ lives in Gladstone, then comes to find out that there is only one officer living in Gladstone, the individual could then use a service like WhitePages.com to input the name and ZIP and have immediate… access to that person's address, phone number, and more.”
To my surprise, District Attorney Mike Schmidt sided with the city—sort of. The city’s attorney had also argued that the Bureau of Human Resources wasn’t required to give me the complete dataset because it meant city staff would have to create a document that wasn’t already in existence. Under state public records law, public agencies are not required to create a new record to comply with a records request—they are only responsible for providing records that already exist. In creating a new document that included the actual number of officers in those “1 to 5” ZIP codes, city staff would be creating a new record.
“The petition is denied because [Bureau of Human Resources] does not possess a record responsive to petitioner’s request,” wrote Schmidt in his decision, managing to avoid acknowledging the entire reason I appealed in the first place.
My reaction: UGH. Sure, this ruling was legally sound, but it felt like an unnecessary stretch for Schmidt to make. Schmidt’s decision did come shortly after reporting revealed how reviled he had become by some PPB officers, especially those who believed Schmidt was undermining their work by dismissing low-level charges against protesters. Was this a coincidence? Was I just a bitter journalist searching for some kind of conspiracy to explain a very normal decision? I thought so, until I made one last-ditch effort to get the data by going straight to the source: the police bureau.
I requested the same ZIP code data from PPB’s records department and, a month later, received it. All of it. No redactions or arbitrary ZIP code ranges. With newfound gratitude for PPB’s records staff, I wrote my updated story (spoiler: only 18 percent of PPB officers live in Portland).
Yet, while my mission was complete, I still wasn’t content with the process. And I had a question: If the police bureau had no problem sharing detailed data about officers’ ZIP codes, why did the city’s Bureau of Human Resources staff, city attorneys, and the district attorney’s office put in extra work to make sure I didn’t get it? Was this how city and county staff displayed their allegiance to a disgruntled police force?
Jeff Merrick, a Portland lawyer with a long history of fighting public agencies who chose to withhold records, believes so. From his perspective, it appears as if the city’s Bureau of Human Resources staff bent public record law to deny my full ZIP code request, instead leaning on an odd interpretation of the law’s public safety protections to deny it. Which suggests the city prioritized PPB’s respect over the state’s public record law.
“The question is, ‘Is it ethical for [the city] to choose to follow a policy choice over public records law?’” asked Merrick. “Personally, I don’t think so."
Merrick said the ethics at play in this case reminded him of when he worked for former Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer in the 1980s. Merrick recalled handling a public records request from members of Oregon’s Rajneesh commune, which the state was currently fighting in court, and asking Frohhmayer how to respond.
“What Frohnmeyer told us was to play it straight,” Merrick said. “It doesn’t matter if we're opponents in litigation—we’re not playing games. If public records law says to disclose it, then disclose it.”
I’m not the only journalist who’s hit a wall trying to request public records from the city. The Society of Professional Journalists’ Oregon chapter has repeatedly raised concerns with the city over its bureaucratic and seemingly petty decisions to deny reporters readily available records. And yet, in this case, it appears my denial was used to send a message to pesky journalists and police.
I’m not sure the message stuck for either of us.