Breaking News
More () »

Ad campaign targets Multnomah County officials, pressuring them to act on crime

People For Portland, the group that's bankrolling the ads, lays much of its criticism at the doorstep of Multnomah County DA Mike Schmidt.

PORTLAND, Ore. — If you've been watching television lately, you may have spotted an unusual series of ads that might seem more at home in the run-up to an election. They target the Multnomah County District Attorney, county commissioners and the county sheriff in an apparent effort to pressure them into doing more about Portland's crime issues.

For most of the 32 years that KGW's Pat Dooris has worked in Portland, the Multnomah County DA's office has kept a pretty low profile. That's changed significantly these days — and not necessarily because DA Mike Schmidt has tried to take the office into the spotlight, but because the spotlight is being shined on him.

A privately funded group called "People for Portland" — a frequent political gadfly over the past few years — has been targeting Schmidt with a series of negative ads.

"Under the policies of DA Mike Schmidt we have record shootings and murders — and while jail beds sit empty, too many crimes like vandalism and burglary go unprosecuted. Portland is a Schmidt-show. Take action to save it," one of the group's ads says.

People For Portland vs. Mike Schmidt

Dan Lavey, one of the organizers of People for Portland, is happy to echo the sentiment from the group's ad when asked directly.

"Well, Portland is a Schmidt-show. And the fact that an elected official like the elected DA is a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution is frankly unacceptable," Lavey said. "And we need change in policies. Now we need more prosecutions. We need empty jail beds that are open and we need a DA who does more than hold a press conference, and without offering any new solutions to make Portland safe again."

RELATED: ‘We’re not giving up’: Judge rejects People for Portland ballot initiative for the second time

Lavey has a deep background in Oregon politics, mostly on the Republican side of the political spectrum. He's been trying to use his politically savvy to drum up grassroots pressure on Portland's elected leaders, goading them to take action.

People for Portland has been around for about two years. Lavey said that it has about 1,500 people donating money and 18,000 who've shared their email addresses.

To assess the claims in the ad that Schmidt isn't prosecuting enough crimes, Dooris reached out to the DA's office for comment, but did not immediately receive a response. Instead, he received a statement from Multnomah County.

The county's statement contained a report that Schmidt sent out in early February. In it, he reported that the number of cases referred to his office by the Portland Police Bureau had fallen sharply compared to before the pandemic — just 36% of the misdemeanor cases they'd usually see between 2016 and 2019.

Schmidt wrote that most of those reductions involve traffic crimes, which is unsurprising; Portland police don't have a traffic unit anymore. He also pointed to thefts, trespassing and possession of controlled substances. On the last point, he pointed to the impact of Measure 110, which decriminalized user amounts of drugs that might have previously resulted in possession charges.

At the same time, KGW senior investigative reporter Kyle Iboshi found late last year that Schmidt's office has been prosecuting less than half of the misdemeanor theft cases that are brought to them by police. Schmidt countered at the time that his office prosecutes all the cases that they have sufficient evidence to pursue.

RELATED: After recent shootings, Multnomah County criminal justice leader express solidarity

For background, Schmidt campaigned as a criminal justice reformer. In 2020, he was elected in a landslide, receiving more than 70% of the vote.

But Schmidt ticked off a lot of people when he announced in August 2020 that he would not prosecute more than 520 people charged during protests with "interfering with a police officer" and other non-violent crimes. That led to the impression, at least among Schmidt's opponents, that rioters were all simply let off the hook — even though people accused of violent crimes were most certainly prosecuted.

As all this was playing out, the federal government quietly dismissed dozens of its own protest-related cases in Portland.

Are there no jail beds?

Lavey, who is funded by some wealthy Oregonians, says that many people want to see a change.

"Yeah, we're funded by Oregonians and Portlanders who care deeply about Portland and the future of this city and the future of the state," he said. "I'm born and raised here. You know a lot of people are heartbroken about what is happening to our city and state and our elected officials, they sign up for these jobs. They run for these jobs. They ask for these jobs. They need to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem."

People For Portland is also taking aim at the Multnomah County Sheriff and Board of Commissioners for not using all available jail beds, allegedly leaving dangerous people on the streets.

County spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti said that the premise of the ad campaign is wrong; that the county is not operating under any limited jail capacity and that Multnomah County has funded 1,117 jail beds for several years.

Ten years ago, the county funded 1,310 jail beds. It remained at that level until 2017, when Multnomah County cut funding and phased out 118 jail beds — referencing "an effort to reduce reliance on jail bed use in the local public safety system."

At that point, the number of jail beds stood at 1,192. It remained that way until 2021, when the board cut another 75 beds — taking it to the current 1,117. The budget note said that the cut was part of public safety reform efforts.

Late last year, Multnomah County released an annual grand jury report that looked at the status of each of the county's jails. Among many other things, the report noted that the Inverness Jail continues to suffer from "critically" short staffing, which reports have observed since at least 2017. Meanwhile, the maximum security Multnomah County Detention Center downtown has been operating for 40 years when it was supposed to have a lifespan of 20 years.

Corrections staff told the grand jury that the jail facilities function best "when operating below full capacity."

Throughout Multnomah County's adult jail system, the report noted, a little over half of inmates are sitting in jail awaiting a court date due to delays in the criminal justice system, particularly the shortage of public defenders. On average, inmates wait a few weeks to a month. In some cases they wait more than 150 days.

Regardless, Lavey's group is correct that there are fewer available jail beds than a decade ago — and for reasons that Multnomah County hasn't entirely made clear, about 30% of beds are not being used at a given time.

Despite the pointed criticisms, Lavey said that his group isn't specifically trying to recall elected officials like DA Schmidt or prop up election rivals — the law his group is formed under does not allow them to campaign or support anyone in particular.

The Oregonian reported Wednesday that long-time senior deputy district attorney Nathan Vasquez is considering a run against his boss in the 2024 election. In a statement, he confirmed to KGW that he's thinking it over.

"Over the past few months many people including crime victims, community members, business owners, judges and prosecutors have asked me to run for Multnomah County District Attorney," Vasquez said. "The recurring theme I have heard is our need for improved community safety and the need to support victims. I am honored that they have confidence and trust in me. This is an important decision that deserves thoughtful and serious conversations with my family, friends, and community members. I look forward to this potential opportunity to continue to serve victims and improve safety in this community."

Before You Leave, Check This Out