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After vowing to crack down on protest violence, Portland mayor says change will 'take some time'

The push to change how the city responds to violence came after dozens of people vandalized businesses on New Year’s Eve.

PORTLAND, Ore. — More than a week after publicly vowing to crack down on protesters who vandalize and damage buildings in Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler said he’s met with law enforcement agencies who can help make that happen but added changes will “take some time.”

“As much as I'd like this to go away right away, I acknowledge it's going to require some not only tactical changes at the local level, but it's going to require collaborations that don't exist, including stronger mutual aid at the local level,” the mayor said in an interview Monday.

On Friday, Wheeler’s office issued a news release noting he had met with “leaders of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies” but that the “criminal tactics Portland and other cities are confronting are new. Creating workable, effective solutions requires thoughtful and constructive collaboration across multiple agencies and stakeholders.“

The push to change how the city responds to violence came after dozens of people vandalized businesses on New Year’s Eve, spray-painting buildings and breaking windows. At least three people were arrested and police declared the event a riot.

At press conference on Friday, Jan. 1, Wheeler called those responsible "violent and antifa and anarchists” and vowed to do more to stop vandalism, which has sporadically marred Portland’s racial justice protests since the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

RELATED: Riot in downtown Portland on NYE reportedly caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said responding law enforcement officers came under attack on New Year’s Eve . 

"It was very violent," Lovell said. "A very large confrontational group met them with Molotov cocktails, rocks, bricks and frozen water bottles." 

The mayor that day committed to three changes.

First, he asked law enforcement to meet with him to address the ongoing violence in Portland and across the state. Second, he asked state lawmakers to come up with stiffer penalties for those who repeatedly engage in vandalism and destruction. And lastly, he wants those convicted of the destruction and vandalism to meet with the employees and owners of the damaged businesses. 

But state lawmakers haven’t responded with any plans to pass new laws aimed at raising those penalties. On Monday, Wheeler said he has met with partnering agencies, but progress has been incremental.

“We have worked to identify ways that we can be more effective in terms of making arrests and collecting evidence and prosecuting and holding accountable those who are engaged in destruction,” he said. “There was an honest admission in our first meeting that some of the tools that we use in law enforcement have not evolved as quickly as some of the tactics being used by the groups who are engaged in this kind of activity.”

KGW also Monday reached out to agencies who would likely be partnering with the city in these efforts. 

A spokesman for Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt sent a statement that declined to highlight any changes in policies tied to Portland’s protests. It said the DA’s office would continue “to work with law enforcement to identify, investigate and prosecute criminal conduct, including property destruction and violence.  It is our current, and continuing policy, to prosecute these offenses whenever possible, using all legally obtained evidence submitted to our office for review.”

A statement from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office sent a similar message.

“We will continue to assist the Portland Police Bureau, and our local partners, when it’s appropriate and we have the resources to do so,” wrote communications director Chris Liedle. “Our primary responsibility has been and remains protection of the Justice Center, which is the location of the Multnomah County Detention Center, and other county facilities.” 

One of Portland’s newest city commissioners Carmen Rubio also sent KGW a statement, that notably declined to endorse the mayor’s push for harsher penalties. It reads: “We should first start using the tools at our current disposal...We have strong mechanisms to hold people accountable that cause property and physical injury to others once properly investigated and referred to DA Schmidt for prosecution."

The commissioner, who took the job after years running the Portland-based nonprofit Latino Network, added, “I do believe we must tackle issues pertaining to public safety and look forward to proposing changes with my colleagues that do not exacerbate inequities in our criminal justice system.”

RELATED: Riot declared, 1 arrested in Tigard after vandalism in response to fatal police shooting