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Hardesty says she's open to being the Portland police commissioner

Hardesty, who is pushing for police reform, had previously said she had no interest in being police commissioner. The role is traditionally taken on by the mayor.

PORTLAND, Ore. — For the first time, Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she is open to heading up the Portland Police Bureau.

Traditionally, the mayor has taken on that role, and Mayor Ted Wheeler currently heads the bureau. Hardesty, who is pushing for police reform, had said in recent interviews she had no interest in being police commissioner.

However, during this week's taping of "Straight Talk," Hardesty told KGW's Laural Porter she's warming to the idea of having the police bureau in her portfolio. She currently oversees three first responder bureaus: Portland Fire & Rescue, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management and the Bureau of Emergency Communications.

"I never wanted the police bureau. But, I believe there's some logic in having all the first responder bureaus under one commissioner. And I would take it, because we are doing this transformation, if the mayor offered it," she said.

Hardesty couldn't offer a timeline for when a change might happen but said she and Wheeler work closely and are in daily conversations. She said it could be any day or in January, if that was Wheeler's decision.

"Honestly, if he gave me the police bureau, I think we'd see a rash of retirements, and then we could start hiring the police force we want," she said.

Watch Hardesty on KGW's Straight Talk:

Hardesty's vision for community safety

This week, Hardesty released her vision for community safety focused on transforming the police bureau. It includes reducing the size and scope of the police force, reinvesting those dollars in the community, creating alternatives to the police, decriminalizing non-violent offenses and demilitarizing officers.

Hardesty didn't offer a specific number of officers her plan would cut. There are about 900 officers in the Portland Police Bureau, and Hardesty said recent budget cuts eliminated about 60 officers.

RELATED: Portland City Council defunds police bureau by $15 million

"I don't know what the right number is but what I do know is with what we want police to do now, they are not the right people to do it," she said. "We need to re-imagine what public safety looks like. Many people don't feel safe with heavily armed people who are sworn to protect and serve," Hardesty said.

Portland Street Response: Alternative to police

She pointed to the Portland Street Response Team as an example of a different way of responding to many 911 calls. It's a program aimed at breaking the pattern of sending officers to calls that involve homelessness and mental health issues by sending EMTs and crisis counselors instead.

By cutting the Portland Police Bureau's Gun Violence Reduction Team, the city council transferred nearly $5 million to the Portland Street Response program. Now, instead of just one team, there will be six to respond to different areas of the city. The timeline for getting the first teams up and running has been delayed though, and it likely won't be until 2021.

RELATED: Amid calls for police reform, 'hold up in HR' blamed for delay in Portland Street Response launch

A significant number of calls to the 911 system are about unwanted people or people who are homeless. Hardesty said police shouldn't be responding to those types of calls.

"Police should solve crimes. That's it. We should create a first responder system that responds to the needs of the community," she said.

As the city moves toward police reform, Hardesty plans to have talks with community members all over Portland to find out what their idea of community safety is.

Federal officers in Portland

One thing Portland doesn't need, she said, is federal officers involved with protests.

"I want them out of here. We do not need federal officers to exacerbate the conflict between the community and police. I have been terrified about what will happen or could happen with federal agents here," she said.

Hardesty said none of the agents wear identification indicating what agency they represent. She said she talked with Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley this week, who wasn't able to get any information about them either.

RELATED: Who are these federal officers sent to Portland to deal with protesters?

She is also concerned about their use of tear gas, especially during a pandemic.

"Gassing people every day will have a huge impact on their respiratory system," she said.

On Thursday, the head of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, one of the top federal law enforcement officials in the country was in Portland. He released a letter criticizing the city's response to the protests saying the city was under siege by a violent mob.

"Instead of addressing violent criminals in their communities, local and state leaders are instead focusing on placing blame on law enforcement and requesting fewer officers in their community. The failed response has only emboldened the violent mob as it escalates violence day after day," he wrote.

Hardesty fired back blaming President Trump.

"Unfortunately, it appears '45' sent these thugs, and thugs is not an overstatement, and I think he personally sent them to cities perceived to be liberal so he could interrupt the election cycle," she said.

Nightly clashes between police and protesters

Both Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Mayor Wheeler have called for the nightly destructive protests to end.

RELATED: Gov. Brown on federal officers in Portland for protests: Trump’s troops not the answer

Hardesty stopped short of calling for the protests to stop, and said she doesn't think the clashes with police are a distraction from the message of racial equity and reform.

"No, I don't think they are a distraction from the message. People of color have been saying this for years, I've personally been saying it for 30 years. I think what's happening is white people are starting to see if a couple of people are being destructive, the police response is to gas, and intimidate and injure hundreds of people," she said.

Hardesty thinks one way to resolve things is to give people concrete things to do. She hopes to get many community members who are interested in police reform involved with workgroups to help implement her plan for re-imagining community safety.

Working with a new city council

Hardesty is looking forward to working with the new city council. She is the only commissioner who isn't up for reelection. 

In May, Carmen Rubio won the seat being vacated by Amanda Fritz who is retiring at the end of the year. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is in a run-off with Mingus Mapps in November, as is Mayor Wheeler, who faces Sarah Iannarone.
And voters will choose either Loretta Smith or Dan Ryan to succeed the late Nick Fish in a special election on Aug. 11. The winner of that race will join the city council immediately.

RELATED: Race to fill open Portland City Council seat headed to runoff on August 11

Hardesty has endorsed Wheeler for a second term, saying she doesn't want to see Portland have another one-term mayor.

Wheeler is the first Portland mayor to seek reelection since Vera Katz was reelected to a third term 20 years ago.

"I'm excited to think the new city council will be made up of a majority of commissioners who are not career politicians and have deep roots in the community. I know the dynamic in January will be a lot different," she said.

Hardesty said she's encouraged about the future and what the community can do together.

"We are in exciting times," she said.

"Our community knows our justice system is fatally broken. They know racial justice is not realized as of yet, even though it's been a dream for many, many years. But, I'm most excited about the ongoing energy to demand change. I don't want to mislead people, though, we have a lot of work to do," Hardesty said.

Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and Monday at 4:30 a.m. It's also available on podcast.

RELATED: KGW's Straight Talk is now a podcast!