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Oregon Law Enforcement Turns Down Governor's Help Request


Portland, Ore. is struggling - struggling because of three months of often-violent protests and a fatal shooting this weekend during a political street fight between left-wing and right-wing groups. And now a fresh challenge - suburban law enforcement agencies say they don't want to help the city out. NPR law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste is here with more.

Hey there, Martin.


KELLY: So the governor of Oregon had a plan to try to calm things down in Portland. And that plan involved getting help from police in nearby cities. Is what we're hearing now - they're saying no?

KASTE: That's right. Yeah, the Portland police have been really stretched this summer, as you can imagine. You know, they've - you know, these are daily protests, and these protesters roam. They go to different parts of the city, targeting a police station here, you know, a union - police union office there. Last night, they were outside the mayor's apartment building, breaking windows. Somebody threw some debris - burning debris into the building.

And moving around and tracking these groups of people - that takes a lot of personnel, lots of overtime. And also, the police bureau here has just lost a lot of officers to attrition retirement. So the governor said the suburban police departments should, you know, help out a little bit here. And they just gave her a flat-out no.

KELLY: And why not?

KASTE: Well, this may have something to do with some bad feelings about a lawsuit. Previous times when suburban police have helped out in the city, they've been sued by civilians. But in this case, the chief and the sheriffs in the suburbs have also been very specific. They say Portland has been too easy, in their view, on rioters and arsonists, arresting them, letting them go without charges. And one of the sheriffs even said that this is not about sending in more police, that this will only be solved, quote - if it's a change of policy - "to hold offenders accountable," he said.

KELLY: Well, just fact-check some of that criticism for us. Is it justified, this complaint that they've been going too easy on rioters and arsonists?

KASTE: Well, the county attorney in Portland has said that he won't prosecute protesters when they're arrested for nonviolent things like violating the rioting ordinance or interfering with police. And there's some politics to that 'cause he's a progressive prosecutor. He doesn't want to muzzle legitimate protesters or over-prosecute. But there's also some practical reality here. He just doesn't have the staff. If he wanted to prosecute hundreds of people, he couldn't.

KELLY: Let me turn you to something the president said today. President Trump said he would like to send federal law enforcement to help in Portland. He says that would take care of things, quote, "very quickly." How will that offer be received in Portland, Ore.?

KASTE: Well, the politics - the national politics makes this so much harder for Democratic officials in Portland. I mean, they're definitely feeling pressure to find some peace for the city, to tamp things down. And the people I know and talk to in Portland say they're really weary of, you know, as some people put it, you know, political bullies - small groups of people on the left and the right just kind of taking over downtown. But these city leaders - they can't really afford either to be seen as accepting President Trump's vision of Democratic cities as being lawless, you know? To take that help would also be sort of to agree with him. They don't want to go there to that place either, politically.

But the thing to remember about this, though, is that it's normal for federal law enforcement to help out a city in a situation like this. I'm not talking about the kind of camo-wearing guys we saw in July outside the federal courthouse. I'm talking about the FBI and the ATF, which, you know, in these situations often investigate and prosecute political violence. And in places like Seattle, we have seen that kind of help being offered and actually charges being brought. And local officials are kind of quietly happy that it's happening. But they sure don't want to be seen as welcoming it because right now, in these liberal cities, because of the politicization of this by Trump, that's kind of a no-win situation for them.

KELLY: That is NPR's Martin Kaste.

Thank you, Martin.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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