This Week in the Mercury


Thursday, April 28, 2011

In or Out on JTTF? Well, We're More In Than We Were

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Apr 28, 2011 at 6:03 PM

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At a long-awaited hearing pierced, at times, by the cries of a passionate protest outside city hall, a unanimous Portland City Council voted this afternoon to upend six years of city policy and sign onto a rare agreement with the federal government that reunites its police officers with a controversial anti-terrorism task force while also paying respects to Oregon's unique civil liberties laws.

In a sight that might have seemed impossible only a week ago, U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton and the ACLU's Andrea Meyer both sat at the same table in front of the council, offering their support for the city's resolution on the Joint Terrorism Task Force. That was made possible after a deal worked out by Commissioner Randy Leonard this week, refining a previous attempt by Mayor Sam Adams last week that sought to achieve the same goal—but with language that Holton found objectionable.

Even as the hearing opened, several important questions loomed over the resolution. And it wasn't certain earlier this week, given those questions, that the council would actually decide on the pact. But the vote came, after commissioners asked a series of tough questions. In another surprise,i t was unanimous. Nick Fish, Adams, and Leonard were known to be in support, but Dan Saltzman, who first pushed for full rejoining last fall, and Amanda Fritz, were on the fence. How they came to agree was funny.

"This agreement is leaps and bounds from where we started," Saltzman said in remarks light on praise for the mayor, saying he considers it "rejoining." "And it's light years ahead of where we left off in what i considered to be a disappointing 2005 agreement. It gets us working together."

Then quoth Fritz: "The FBI is already operating in Portland. I want our police officers to know what's going on. We're not rejoining the JTTF, and I think that's a good thing."

And even some of those who support the agreement remain cautious. Meyer reminded the council of the FBI's spotty history of badgering antiwar activists and Muslims who haven't been implicated in any crimes. She said it was a question of "when," and not "if," Portland cops would be asked take part in such activities. Annual reports on JTTF activity must be detailed, she said. Training for cops must be rigorous.

"We urge the passage of this resolution," she said. "But we also urge you to convey our expectation that our officers will refuse to participate in the kind of FBI activity that has been documented across the country that abuses or civil liberties and our civil rights."

Not that there wasn't a lot of love, too. Holton, throughout the process, has come off as self-effacing and charming, and today was no exception. He praised Fish, a former civil rights lawyer, for asking tough questions during previous hearings and in private talks. The mayor for providing leadership and committing to winning political capital. Leonard for pushing so hard for the deal, and for keeping cops working with the JTTF on an as-needed basis.

"You don't want officers watching a fax machine for leads or getting coffee for the big feds. I'm committed to making sure we honor that."

And Saltzman for first pushing the issue, on the day Mohamed Mohamud was arraigned in connection with the Pioneer Courthouse Square bomb plot last fall.

"Your position has served almost as a gravitational force, in my point of view, to help hold the document to where it is now."

Fritz got the shortest applaudit—she connected him to the community. And, fittingly, it was Fritz who took off the gloves first. She asked some of the most difficult questions, ending a public silence on the JTTF that she'd maintained ever since the issue first flared.

She got the city attorney working on the issue, Ellen Osoinach, as well as Holton, to define a phrase that's been hailed as the key to the deal, but one that's also been criticized as vague: "criminal nexus." Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch and Brandon Mayfield, a victim of an overzealous FBI, had complained that the term could still allow for guilt by association and lead to rights violations. The phrase was added after language favored by the ACLU, limiting cops' work only to "full investigations," was struck at the urging of Holton, Saltzman, and Fish. The entire chunk of text reads like this:

“PPB officers shall work with the JTTF only on investigations of suspected terrorism that have a criminal nexus; in situations where the statutory or common law of Oregon is more restrictive of law enforcement than comparable federal law, the investigative methods employed by PPB officers working on JTTF investigations shall conform to the requirements of such Oregon statutes or common law.”

"It was intended to be a plain language requirement that the investigations the officer work are related to crime, have a connection to crime. And specifically that they are to be cases of suspected terrorism ," Osoinach said, adding with regards to "guilt by association": "That is definitely not what is meant by criminal nexus."

Saltzman also probed deep. He got Holton to admit that he hadn't gotten a sign-off from the U.S. Attorney General. And he made Police Chief Mike Reese affirm that Portland officers will work with FBI agents during preliminary investigations—despite concerns that such "assessments" walk close to a danger zone over rights.

Later in the hearing, Leonard referenced JTTF news that emerged this week out of San Francisco, where the ACLU found that cops there were secretly working the the feds and spying on residents. He said everyone should understand that Portland's resolution is different.

"When this resolution is in place, and if tomorrow the US attorney requests assistance for a case they think meets the definition of the criminal nexus to have access Portland police officers, that does not mean that the police chief and the police commissioner will assign officers to them," he said. "That is a fundamental difference between what happens in other jurisdictions. I don't want anybody voting on this who doesn't understand this."

But community members who disagreed with the council's vote routinely put their thumbs down or even hissed when commissioners spoke. Saltzman got an earful when he said it was time to stop obsessing over "things that happened 60 years ago," never mind evidence that the same things are still happening.

"These high profile cases are not exceptions," said Sisters of the Road's Chani Geigle-Teller. "We know that every day people of color, Muslims, immigrants, peace activists, and labor organizers, are being monitored, targeted, imprisoned, and tortured by our government."

Fritz, at least, agreed that human rights "can be violated in these types of investigations."

She supported Andrea Meyer's call that the council's annual on the JTTTF include records of consultations with the city attorney, the types of investigations undertaken by officers, how many times the police commissioner and chief are briefed, and how much time cops have spent on probes.

Another important step: What kind of policy will the police bureau craft, when it comes to actually putting the council's intent into practice. Will the protection of rights be as clear as the council says it is?

"I'll personally see to that," Leonard said. Before noting that that would be Adams' job.

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