‘Fire in Portland’: Area DAs split on ideological lines

Special Reports

Tri-county DAs talk with KOIN 6 News

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Violent crime rates have been skyrocketing across Portland.

The Portland Police Bureau said there have been 100 shootings and six gun-related homicides in January alone. The city logged 54 murders in 2020 — the most in 25 years — and 893 shootings compared to 393 shootings in all of 2019.

Few in law enforcement have been willing to publicly criticize the alarming trend. How to stop it and how to deal with violent protests are part of an ideological battle playing out in Oregon on multiple levels.

“In ways, I’m seeing a tale of two cities — I’m seeing Portland and I’m seeing everybody else,” said Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton. “They are Washington County’s neighbor and there’s clearly a fire happening in Portland right now. Question is, can they put that fire out and can they keep it from spreading to Washington County? Crime knows no boundary.”

Kevin Barton, current Chief Deputy District Attorney says._521866
Washington County DA Kevin Barton (KOIN, file)

Barton, along with Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett, Clackamas County District Attorney John Wentworth and former Clackamas County DA John Foote decided to share their concerns about what they see in Portland.

“I just think the numbers speak for themselves,” said Garrett.

“Certainly, something is not working and it’s of great concern to all of us,” said Wentworth.

Foote spent a decade prosecuting cases in Multnomah County before leading the office in Clackamas County. He has also been a leading advocate of Measure 11, Oregon’s 27-year-old mandatory sentencing law which drastically cut a soaring crime rate in the 1980s and ’90s.

“We cannot have a civilized society if we do not have our citizens’ fundamentally feel safe,” he said.

Foote’s concern is aimed largely at one man: Mike Schmidt.

“The current DA in Multnomah County, who has no real life experience doing any of this comes in with his ideology as if none of that was right,” he said. “None of his ideas are time tested anywhere. And it had been shown to work. And the people that are going to suffer are the people who live in Multnomah County.”

Schmidt took over as the Multnomah County DA in August after running on a platform of sentencing reform.

“[Foote is] known in criminal justice circles in this state as somebody who has fought any kind of criminal justice reform,” Schmidt said. “He’s advocated for tougher and tougher sentences. That’s not what this community called for. That’s not what I ran on. So, you know, I respect DA Foote. I worked with him for years when I was at the commission. He’s done a lot of great things for this state asking for additional research. He’s been an advocate for changing our definition of recidivism, which I think was a huge plus, but we don’t see eye to eye on policy things.”

Mike Schmidt won the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office race in 2020. Credit: Mike Schmidt 2020

When Schmidt became DA, he announced his office would likely not prosecute most people arrested at protests unless someone was hurt or property was damaged.

KOIN 6 News records show Schmidt’s office has not prosecuted 91.56% of people arrested since protests began in May of 2020.

“This current DA in Multnomah County thinks what’s politically correct is all that matters,” said Foote. While Foote said he doesn’t blame Schmidt for the ongoing violence, he does blame Schmidt “for not doing anything about it.”

“I’ve clearly been addressing the ongoing violence. So not doing anything about it is just inaccurate and anybody can look at the cases that we’re making,” Schmidt responded. “And I also disagree with his contention that the policy isn’t based on a research or evidence of what works, I mean, the cases and where we drew the line was saying, we’re going to focus our resources when people are hurting other people, when they’re damaging storefronts, that’s who we’re going to protest, or that’s who we’re going to prosecute. We’re not going to prosecute people who happen to be at a demonstration or a protest who are saying that they don’t think the criminal justice system is serving them, and then they don’t leave fast enough.”

In early January, the Oregon District Attorneys Association voted overwhelmingly to support keeping Measure 11, even after Schmidt and two other district attorneys argued judges should have more discretion.

Meanwhile, Democrats — who control the state legislature — have been chipping away at Measure 11 with more efforts planned in favor of rehabilitation programs and saving money on prisons. The backdrop for it all are calls for social and criminal justice reform, the Black Lives Matter movement, infiltration of BLM protests by anarchists and antifa, and the confrontations with far right groups such as Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys. Then add in the pandemic and hundreds of shootings in Portland, many of which have occurred while the PPB has been stretched thin by civil unrest.

When asked what alarms him when looking east, Garrett replied, “Well, specifically, the homicide numbers which I would characterize as an epidemic.”

PMG FILE PHOTO – Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett speaks at the dedication of the new Washington County Sheriff’s Office training center in Hillsboro in July 2019.

“You have to support the public safety system with necessary resources in order for it to work,” said Barton. “And if you start taking money away without having a strategy behind that, then it’s going to have unintended consequences. And a good example of that is the Gun Violence Reduction Team in Portland — by taking money away from that, you can almost see a direct relation to an increase in shootings and an increase in homicides.”

Garrett, Barton and Wentworth won’t criticize specific leaders in Portland. All call for a synergy between police, mental health and social services.

“I have a real concern that on both sides of the aisle, what people are hearing is you can’t trust the system at all, anywhere. Now, for me in my realm, it’s in the criminal justice system and I think that does a damage to our community,” said Wentworth.

“It’s like we have amnesia,” said Foote. “The lessons that we know we learned over those 40 years are now being treated as if they were wrong.”

KOIN 6 News asked Schmidt if he thinks he’s ever sent the wrong message to people about committing crime. He said he’s been very clear about who gets prosecuted.

Vandals smashed windows at the Whole Foods at NE 43rd and Sandy in Portland, November 20, 2020 (KOIN)

“If you’re damaging somebody’s property, if you’re hurting somebody, we’re prosecuting those crimes,” he replied. “I ran on a campaign of talking about mass incarceration, talking about the overuse of the criminal justice system, talking about using jails in lieu of addiction treatment and mental health. And I won with 77% of the vote, so I think Multnomah County is really on board with that message. So when I talk about prioritizing my office’s resources toward the most violent crime, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.”

As an example of the ideological split, KOIN 6 News learned Schmidt has hired his own lobbyist to sway legislative opinion in Salem. Aaron Knott recently started the job, which pays an annual salary of $180,000. Knott will also work on policy change within the DA’s office. It marks the first time a district attorney has ever split from the rest of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, which has its own lobbyist in Salem.

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