CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has vowed to crack down on “antifa anarchists” after a riot on New Year’s Eve, but months of catch-and-release policing has skeptics wondering if anything will change.

“Right now there’s a lot of people that are emboldened to just do whatever they want,” Gabe Johnson, co-founder of the Coalition to Save Portland, told KOIN 6 News. Johnson feels city and county officials have set a precedent that will be hard to reverse, and thinks the mayor’s announcement is “just more words.”

Out of more than a thousand arrests reported by the Portland Police Bureau and other local law enforcement since late May 2020, only about 8.4% of cases are still open, according to court records. The rest have been dismissed or listed as no complaint, which means authorities are not currently pursuing charges. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt has repeatedly argued cases could be reopened later, but KOIN 6 News could only find a handful of instances where that has happened in the past seven months.

Meanwhile, demonstrators have embraced the lack of prosecutions as a win.

“If (the police) want to arrest 50 people a night, then, OK, that’s what they’re going to do,” Braxton with Black Unity PDX told KOIN 6 News in December. “Their jail is too small. They don’t have room for that many people and the DA isn’t prosecuting any more. So we won that too.”

Braxton hasn’t been arrested at the protests, but said he knows many people who have. He described PPB’s process as “BS.”

“They just arrest you, you get let out in the morning, depending on how much they hate you they’ll either let you out at like 3 a.m. or like 9 a.m.,” he said. “Like if there’s somebody who always yells at them and they know you, then you’re not getting out until sometimes the afternoon.”

First timers or people who aren’t being “obnoxious” often get let out right away, Braxton observed.

“Then you get a no complaint on your court date,” he added. “So it’s like, why are you arresting people?”

“I’m prosecuting cases where people are breaking things,” Schmidt told KOIN 6 News in December.

The cases his office has presumptively declined to prosecute are ones that don’t involve property damage, theft or the threat or use of force against another person. Interfering with a peace officer and disorderly conduct are the most common charges associated with the unrest in Portland.

“Just because there was an arrest, it is not, and should not be assumed that there was damage because the vast, vast, vast, overwhelming majority of the cases referred to our office during these protests have no evidence of that,” Schmidt said.

Some of the cases his office is prosecuting include the use of high-powered lasers, felons in possession of body armor, and arson.

There are instances where charges like criminal mischief (vandalism), riot or assaulting an officer have also been dropped. Schmidt says PPB sometimes refers cases to his office without enough evidence to prosecute.

When KOIN 6 News spoke with PPB spokesman Greg Pashley in December, he didn’t disagree with the district attorney. Pashley said many of the arrests had to do with public order, such as blocking streets, and therefore did not involve damage. He also said many arrests happen late at night, when it’s difficult to contact victims or collect video surveillance or other evidence to refer to the DA’s office.

“From the police standpoint, we could make an arrest based on probable cause in the middle of the night, but still have follow up to do in the days and weeks following in order to make that a good case,” Pashley said. “And the district attorney has of course a slightly different view of that case and then has to make decisions based on the information that they’re provided after that initial arrest.”

“It seems to be that you can almost get away with anything in this city, and this is what we’re not okay with,” Angela Todd, cofounder of the Coalition to Save Portland said. “It’s okay for everyone to feel like they have rights, but as soon as those take away rights of other people, we have some concerns.”

Gabriel Johnson tried to decorate the fence surrounding the Hatfield Federal Courthouse with American flags, July 18, 2020 (KOIN)

The coalition’s other co-founder is Johnson, a Marine veteran who made headlines by placing American flags on the fence surrounding the Federal Courthouse over the summer. Johnson and Todd call the unrest in Portland riots, not protests, drawing a line when lawbreaking begins.

“Free speech is not breaking the law,” Todd said. “Lighting something on fire is breaking the law, busting windows, looting…. We have laws on the books. I suggest we just enforce those.”

The Coalition to Save Portland has gotten particularly involved in the situation with the Red House on North Mississippi, where people barricaded streets in a neighborhood after deputies arrested alleged trespassers in early December. Though the most dramatic parts of the standoff have ended, residents say some demonstrators continue to occupy the property.

Johnson went beyond the barricades in early December and claims he was at one point surrounded by 12 to 16 “armed militants.” He said he filed a police report the next day and was told the probability of it being prosecuted was “next to none.”

“If I were to arm myself and walk down the middle of the street in Portland and forcibly keep somebody against their own will, I would be arrested and prosecuted,” Johnson said. “So what does that tell you?”

KOIN 6 News asked PPB about the incident Johnson mentioned. A spokesman said he could not provide additional details because the reports have not been processed. PPB also could not immediately provide details on the status of dozens of other calls for service related to activity at the Red House.

Todd said people in the neighborhood have been threatened with firearms, harassed and intimidated to the point where they’re afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation.

“There has been no prosecution. I’m a hundred percent sure,” she said. “If our district attorney Mike Schmidt is not going to prosecute people for threatening people with firearms … then how do we close the loop on that type of behavior? There’s not a way to do it.”

The total number of arrests associated with demonstrations and occupations has steeply declined since the summer, but a riot on New Year’s Eve in downtown Portland added another three to the tally and prompted a three-part commitment from Mayor Wheeler.

He said he wants federal, state, county and local law enforcement to convene to deal with “anarchist violence” as soon as possible. He wants people convicted of criminal destruction to be required to meet with those whose businesses they damaged, and perform public service.

Wheeler also wants the state legislature to enact tougher penalties for repeat offenders, a request legal experts see problems with.

At least 61 people have been booked or cited by police at multiple protests. The vast majority of those are not being prosecuted: KOIN 6 News could only find nine repeat arrestees with open cases, and of those, only one man was facing charges in two cases.

Which prompted us to ask the mayor’s office if someone would be considered a repeat offender based on arrests or prosecutions. A spokesman for Wheeler said both, adding that the mayor’s office hopes stiffer penalties will make it easier for the DA’s office to prosecute cases where someone has been arrested at multiple demonstrations.

However, Juan Chavez with the Oregon Justice Resource Center called that plan “unenforceable and unconstitutional” tough talk.

“(Arrests) are unproven crimes,” Chavez said. “There’s a process for this through which a jury of your peers gets to decide whether or not you committed a crime.”

Even if such a policy was tailored just to convictions it would be reminiscent of three-strike laws and mandatory minimums, which Chavez said are ineffective in stopping crime from happening in the first place.

“It doesn’t do much other than fuel mass incarceration,” he said. “That’s why people are out there protesting in the first place.”

It’s not clear how soon legislators could take up the mayor’s proposal, and no further details have been released regarding a possible meeting between different law enforcement agencies either. As of Tuesday morning, the mayor had not been in contact with the district attorney regarding plans for increased penalties either, according to a spokesperson for the DA’s office.

Angela Todd with the Coalition to Save Portland speaks with KOIN 6 News via Zoom.

What is clear is that many people who live and work in Portland are “very, very scared right now,” Todd said. She compared the unrest to “organized crime” and speculated that demonstrators have been using the cold winter months to strategize.

“It’s going to pick right back up in the springtime,” she said. “They’re organizing right now, and they’re getting stronger.”

For Johnson, one of the worst parts is seeing the Black Lives Matter movement stained by violence and destruction.

“What Blacks are going to find is we’re going to find ourselves left behind in this movement because people are going to get tired of it,” he said. “And at the end of the day, we’ll be left again. And that’s what’s sad for me.”