Portland cops could rejoin Joint Terrorism Task Force – OregonLive.com
Portland leaders may assign two police officers to a controversial anti-terrorism task force after a 10-year hiatus with limited or nonexistent involvement.
On Thursday, the Portland City Council will consider recommitting to the Joint Terrorism Task Force with a vote to follow as early as Feb. 11. Portland ditched the FBI-led investigative unit in 2005 but rejoined six years later on an “as-needed” basis that left both sides unhappy.
Portland’s potential involvement would represent a striking turnabout to an often-fractious relationship saddled with concerns about public safety, civil liberties and government transparency. Shifting political winds inside City Hall now signal that the City Council may rejoin the task force after indications in December hinted at a split.
As of Monday, Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish support involvement. Commissioner Amanda Fritz said she will likely vote against participation, although she wants to hear from the public before deciding.
That leaves Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick as the swing votes. Novick said he’s on the fence. How will Hales vote?
“He’s not saying,” Hales’ spokesman Dana Haynes wrote in an email. “He wants the city all in or all out, and he wants to hear more on both counts.”
But a deal does appear more likely than it did two months ago. Hales canceled a December meeting to consider “withdrawal from JTTF involvement” and rescheduled it this week with the City Council now being asked to allow the Police Bureau “to become a member” of the task force.
Oregon U.S. Attorney Amanda Marshall expressed optimism Monday.
“In anticipation of a vote, certainly it is my hope as U.S. attorney that the commissioners will do the right thing and vote to come back into the JTTF,” Marshall said.
Having Portland police fully embedded in the Joint Terrorism Task Force would help detect threats and respond quickly to apprehend suspects, she said. Marshall pointed to the role local police played for the Boston Joint Terrorism Task Force in helping locate suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing case.
“I’m hopeful thoughtful analysis of the facts will guide the council,” she said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which supported the 2011 deal, is opposed to greater involvement.
Executive Director David Fidanque said the FBI operates under its own set of rules that don’t match Portlanders’ values. He said involvement would be counterproductive to community policing and relationship-building with Arab-American communities.
“It’s clear that council needs to not just hear from the public again but to be brought up to date on what little we know of how the FBI operates,” he said.
Portland’s involvement with the task force has proved controversial for more than a decade. Officials first joined the task force in 1997 and formalized the arrangement in 2000 with little fanfare.
But a year later, after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then-Commissioner Hales cast the lone vote against participation, citing concerns that it represented “one more case of specialized assignments dealing with the threat of the month, rather than dealing with the consistent issue of community policing.”
In 2005, a year after the FBI wrongly accused Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield of being linked to a train bombing in Spain, the City Council voted 4-1 to pull out of the task force, with Saltzman opposed.
Portland kept its distance until 2010, when 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested and accused of trying to detonate a bomb in Pioneer Courthouse Square during the annual tree-lighting ceremony. The bomb was a fake, part of a terrorism sting, and Mohamud was later convicted.
In 2011, the City Council voted 5-0 to authorize “as-needed” involvement. The half-in, half-out relationship represented a popular political compromise but left both sides frustrated.
Hales has now floated two proposals for Thursday’s 5 p.m. hearing.
The first would rescind the 2011 deal and effectively cut ties with federal officials.
The second would commit two Portland officers who would report to a task-force supervisor. If approved, Hales would receive classified briefings from the FBI special agent in charge, Gregory T. Bretzing. But the city would no longer produce annual reports about involvement.
Fish, who played a key role developing the 2011 agreement, said better communication between police and federal officials should increase community safety. He said Hales and Police Chief Larry O’Dea can provide safeguards to ease public concerns.
“I would like us to strengthen our participation in the JTTF, and I think we can do so without sacrificing Oregon values,” he said.
Novick, who has expressed frustration about the city’s vague annual reports, said he is undecided. Novick said he’s interested in the notion that Portland cops could help “keep an eye on the FBI” and protest if investigations cross the line, although he said skeptics think that’s highly unlikely.
“I thought that was an interesting argument,” Novick said in an email.
Saltzman will be absent from Thursday’s hearing. Under typical protocol, the City Council would vote at its meeting the following week, on Feb. 11, although Hales’ spokesman said the issue may be delayed.
But whatever the City Council decides, whenever a vote takes place, it’s unlikely to be the final time the topic resurfaces.
“It was an issue a dozen years ago at council. It’s an issue now,” Haynes wrote. “Will it be in the future? Probably.”
— Brad Schmidt and Maxine Bernstein