Texts between Portland police, far-right group draw scrutiny

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PORTLAND, Ore. | The mayor of Portland, Oregon, has asked the police chief to investigate “disturbing” texts between the commander of the department’s rapid response team and the leader of a far-right group involved in violent protests in the city.

The text messages show Lt. Jeff Niiya communicating with Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson during protests, detailing the movement of a rival anti-fascist protest group and warning Gibson a Patriot Prayer member with a possible warrant for his arrest needed to be careful. The messages were first reported Thursday by the Willamette Week newspaper.

FILE – In this Aug. 4, 2018, file photo, counter protesters tear a Nazi flag, in Portland, Ore. A member of Portland’s city council says she is shocked by a newspaper report that the commander for the police rapid response team exchanged friendly text messages with a leader of far-right protests that have rocked the city. Councilwoman Jo Ann Hardesty said the reporting in Willamette Week on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019, confirms there are members of the Portland police force who work in collusion with right-wing extremists. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes, File)

Mayor Ted Wheeler said the messages appeared to encourage Patriot Prayer and contributed to distrust of the police.

The police were accused last August of being heavy-handed and injuring some people who were protesting a rally organized by Gibson. Portland has been roiled by a series of protests over the past several years involving Gibson’s group and a left-wing movement known as antifa, whose members often wear black masks.

Patriot Prayer is a right-wing group whose members say they advocate free speech by opposing political correctness. They have staged many right-wing protest in liberal cites, mostly on the West Coast, some of which have drawn violent reactions.

In a statement, Wheeler said police must remain objective and that the texts appear to “cross several boundaries.”

“They also raise questions about whether warrants are being enforced consistently and what information is being shared with individuals who may be subject to arrest,” the mayor said.

In one text Niiya tells Gibson he doesn’t see a need to arrest his assistant, Tusitala Toese, who often brawls with anti-fascist protesters, even if he has a warrant, unless Toese commits a new crime.

“Just make sure he doesn’t do anything which may draw our attention,” Niiya texted Gibson on Dec. 9, 2017. “If he still has the warrant in the system (I don’t run you guys so I don’t personally know) the officers could arrest him. I don’t see a need to arrest on the warrant unless there is a reason.”

Efforts to reach Niiya for comment were not immediately successful.

A police spokeswoman said it is not unusual for officers to suggest people turn themselves in to avoid being arrested on a warrant.

“In crowd management situations, it may not be safe or prudent to arrest a person right at that time, so the arrest may be delayed or followed up on later It is not uncommon for officers to provide guidance for someone to turn themselves in on a warrant if the subject is not present,” Lt. Tina Jones said told Willamette Week.

Chief Danielle Outlaw said in a statement that an internal review would be conducted to see if policies were violated. “If anything is identified that is deemed outside of our values and directives, it will be addressed,” the police chief said.

A member of Portland’s City Council, Jo Ann Hardesty, said the “broken policing system in Portland” must be addressed.

“This story, like many that have come before it, simply confirms what many in the community have already known — there are members of the Portland police force who work in collusion with right-wing extremists,” she said.