Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt claimed the unusual move would lead to a safer community.
Speaking at a press conference, Schmidt said he acknowledges the emotions of those involved in nightly demonstrations, many of which have turned violent.
“These demonstrations are being used to righteously express grief, anger, and frustration over that senseless act of violence, and the countless other abuses people of color have endured throughout history at the hands of the legal system,” he told reporters.
Schmidt said he wants to be responsive to demands from the demonstrators and the new policy on handling protest-related cases is just the start.
Escape in the third degree, harassment, and riot will also not be prosecuted under the policy.
And a deputy district attorney must review any referred charges of resisting arrest or assaulting a public safety officer, with consideration for the “chaos of a protesting environment,” the district attorney’s office said in the announcement of the changes.
Further, when a person is charged with a misdemeanor or felony that only causes financial harm, that person should be offered “conditional dismissal after restitution is paid to the victim or when other amends to the community are made, such as restorative justice with the impacted victim,” the office said.
Crimes in that category include burglary in the second degree, criminal mischief in the second and third degree, and theft in the first, second, or third degree.
“This policy acknowledges that the factors that lead to the commission of criminal activity during a protest are incredible complex. The protesters are angry, yes, deeply frustrated with what they perceive to be structural inequities in our basic social fabrics. And this frustration can escalate to levels that violate the law,” Schmidt told reporters.
“Some of those violations are impermissible by any standard, resulting in physical violence, injury, and worse. Others represent the instinctive reactions of people who have been gassed repeatedly, who have been struck with kinetic-projectile weapons, and who have seen other protesters arrested in ways they deeply disapprove of.”
Schmidt was officially not supposed to take office until next year but was appointed by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown following the retirement of the previous district attorney last month.
Schmidt recently called a self-identified member of Antifa “an old buddy” and shared an interview he gave to the member. Antifa is a far-left, anarcho-communist network deeply involved in the near-nightly violence that has shaken Portland since May, disrupting normal activities in parts of downtown.
Attorney General William Barr recently described Antifa as a “revolutionary group” bent on establishing socialism or communism.
After the city and state reached a deal with the federal government last month, the demonstrators began turning their attention to city and county buildings and nearby residential areas outside the downtown area, primarily in the northern part of the city.
Dozens of people have been arrested in recent weeks on charges including assaulting an officer, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest.
In response to the new policy, Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said police officers prefer not to make arrests at all.
“Committing a crime is different from demonstrating. Some people use the gatherings as an opportunity to commit crimes. The arrests we make often come after hours of damage to private property, disruption of public transit and traffic on public streets, thefts from small businesses, arson, burglary, attacks on members of the community, and attacks against police officers,” he said in a statement.
The Portland Police Bureau will “continue to reach out to all people to connect and build trusting relationships. One of those relationships is with the district attorney, and we will continue to work with that office in the interest of public safety,” he added.
The gathering late Tuesday outside the Penumbra Kelly building, which houses law enforcement offices, was a rare example of a demonstration that didn’t devolve into a riot. Demonstrators milled around the building from 9:40 p.m. until about 1:30 a.m. No arrests were made and there was no police interaction with the crowd, other than an officer and a medic responding when a person fell out of the back of a pickup truck associated with the group.
After rioters tried burning down a police precinct last week, Portland Mayor and Police Commissioner Ted Wheeler said they committed attempted murder and vowed to do everything in his power to crack down on those responsible. Wheeler and Brown, both Democrats, have declined to take President Donald Trump up on his offer to deploy National Guard troops to Portland.
The Portland Police Association (PPA), a police union, hasn’t responded directly to Schmidt’s new policy.
But in a letter last week to the district attorney and Wheeler, PPA President Daryl Turner denounced the rioters, also referencing consecutive attempts to burn down the East Precinct.
“Twice in the last two days, these rioters have accomplished their mission: chaos and destruction. That is because the Police Bureau’s operational direction from the police commissioner and City Council is to let the violence escalate almost to the point of no return, and only then can the Police Bureau intervene. That is insane,” Turner wrote.
“Police should have the latitude to prevent crime, not watch it happen and only intervene after the fact. It does not stop there. Although the Police Bureau has made 21 arrests in those two days, I have no doubt that those arrested will get away with their crimes without any consequence or accountability from the district attorney’s office.”
Turner urged Wheeler not to “handcuff” the police by telling them when to intervene, and for Schmidt to focus on holding rioters responsible for their actions.
“I am disgusted that our city has come to this. If it is acceptable for rioters to commit acts of violence against community members and to try and burn down occupied buildings, and if this conduct is allowed to continue, then Portland is lost,” he wrote.