PROGRESSIVE PROSECUTOR SERIES: Portland’s D.A. Mike Schmidt Brings Reform to an Epicenter of Anti-Racist Movement

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Source: Mike Schmidt campaign

By Jose Medina 

PORTLAND, OR – With Portland being one of the epicenters for the anti-racist movement, new Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt had his work cut out for him when he was appointed District Attorney a whole five months before his official inauguration.

Schmidt’s first few months in office were met with recurrent, passionate protests demanding deep systemic change in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police.

This tumultuous period tested the grit of his progressive platform, but Schmidt rose to the occasion by providing a policy that would respect the movement’s right to organize and uphold his campaign promises.

Schmidt’s leadership during the George Floyd protests was noted Jan. 4 when he was finally inaugurated by Multnomah County as its new District Attorney. Members of the community spoke on his performance and passion to address systemic racism.

A PROGRESSIVE PLATFORM

Schmidt ran a progressive campaign that aimed to address the inequity and systemic racism within the criminal justice system. He promised to put fairness and effectiveness above all else and pledged to pursue innovative ways to reduce incarceration.

Schmidt vowed to provide a smarter approach to justice by building a data driven transparent system of prosecution, putting mental health treatment first whenever possible, allocating the DA office’s resources towards violent crimes only, supporting common sense gun safety laws, and never seeking the death penalty sentence under any circumstance.

Schmidt promised Multnomah County’s immigrant community that he would defend their civil liberties by not spending sources  cooperating with ICE, push prosecutors to consider possible immigration consequences, not practicing the failed drug policies of the past, and hold officers engaged in misconduct accountable.

The progressive platform indicated that while Schmidt would be taking a victim-centered approach to the criminal justice system, he would do so by reinvesting in programs that help victims heal, learning from survivors of crime on how to improve trauma-informed victim-centered services, and supporting the creation of restorative justice programs.

Addressing the issue of poverty, Schmidt vowed to stop criminalizing poverty by working on an ambitious plan to prevent the criminal justice system from causing further homelessness.

Schmidt’s plan is to work with state legislators to get rid of the cash bail system, assess fines based on a person’s ability to pay, stop suspending licenses because of an honest inability to pay fines, find public health-driven alternatives to pointless incarceration of voluntary sex workers and focus on prosecuting sex traffickers instead, allow people to clear their record so they can find a job, and establishing a problem solving court to avoid pointless convictions.

In addition to addressing local issues, Schmidt has made a commitment to make the system fair. He’s in favor of repealing Oregon Ballot Measure 11 and allow judges to make sentencing decisions based on the defendant’s history, victim’s impact statement, prosecutor’s argument and facts of the case.

Schmidt promised to make sure that his office will share all evidence with the defendant charged by his office to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair towards the defense. He also stated that he would commit towards providing an independent review to all reasonable claims of innocence.

He stated that he would address the needs of women offenders by creating a specialty unit that will take a gender responsive approach to prosecution to ensure women are treated fairly. His platform also will keep youth offenders in the juvenile system and work to shift the focus to prevention.

TUMULTUOUS FIVE MONTHS: STRUGGLE AGAINST SYSTEMIC RACISM

In accordance with making the system fair Schmidt campaigned on a promise to fight systemic racism and bias. This vow was very timely given that the Portland protests happened near the beginning of his term as District Attorney.

When the Trump administration chose to deploy federal agents in Portland, the District Attorney chose to stand by peaceful protesters. On Aug. 11, 2020 Schmidt announced that his office would not pursue cases against most Portland protesters through a new policy regarding protest related cases.

Through this new policy, Schmidt aimed to “acknowledge the depth of emotion that motivates these demonstrations and support those who are civically engaged through peaceful protesting.” His goal as district attorney is to address systemic racism by giving protesters the opportunity to express their grievances and not silence them through force.

He further stated that “We recognize that we undermine public safety, not promote it, if we leverage the force of our criminal justice system against peaceful protesters who are demanding to be heard,”

The policy will “presumptively decline to prosecute cases where the most serious offenses are city ordinance violations and crimes that do not involve property damage, theft, or the use or threat of force against another person.”

Although the policy aims to protect the civil liberties of protesters, Schmidt made it clear that “when an individual case presents unusual, aggravating circumstances, however, our office may prosecute the case.”

This policy aligns well with Schmidt’s intentions of allocating resources towards violent crimes, prevention programs, and rehabilitation services.

He points out that “as stewards of public resources, we must devote our efforts to prosecuting crimes that allow us to protect our most vulnerable victims to have the greatest impact on promoting a safer community for everyone in Multnomah County.”

Shortly after the policy was put into place, protest related cases with aggravated circumstances were prosecuted by the District Attorney’s office.

Schmidt’s office pursued to charge Bryan M. Kelley with a felony assault after he allegedly used a high-powered laser to shine a beam in the eyes of a Portland Police Bureau sergeant during a protest.

Schmidt addressed the incident by saying “we remain committed to supporting peaceful demonstrations but when individuals divert and engage in violence against police officers or anyone else, we are here to hold them accountable.”

The District Attorney’s office continued its work in keeping the community safe by prosecuting Adam Layee after he was found in possession of a destructive device during an unlawful assembly on the 102nd night of Portland demonstrations. He was also charged with a felony riot, reckless endangerment, and reckless burning.

Schmidt prosecuted a third case revolved around Jawad Fakhuri who was charged with felony riot after allegedly throwing a glass bottle at a police officer.

Aside from prosecuting cases, Schmidt condemned the vandalism that occurred at the Multnomah Building during a protest, stating that “breaking out windows, setting fires and committing assaults will not bring the much needed reform we need.”

He also condemned the destruction of communities as well, stating “when we stand up against injustice in our community we do so with an unwavering expectation that our businesses and critical service providers will not be targeted with property damage and that people can gather without fear of physical violence.”

Lamenting the destruction of important community locations, he said “the destruction of property at multiple businesses including at a female founded and women run local clothing store, at a church that provides healing and shelter, clothing, food and assistance to homeless individuals and people overcoming substance abuse and addiction — is unacceptable and criminal.”

Despite the destruction of property and cases of aggravating circumstances, Schmidt’s office is committed to the fight against systemic racism.

He supports peaceful protests and believes they are vital in the fight against injustices. He has not supported or advocated for the use of force against protesters marching in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Schmidt made it clear that “we will always support those who participate in demonstrations absent of behavior that promotes and inflicts harm because such conduct diminishes our shared objectives of creating a stronger, healthier and more equitable community.”

A WELL-EARNED INAUGURATION 

After months of hard work, Schmidt was finally given a virtual inauguration. Multnomah County Community members and leaders were reflective of Schmidt’s work and expressed their faith in his leadership.

Pastor J.W. Hennessee provided opening remarks that called for more leaders like Schmidt “who are committed to both addressing the immediate issue and prosecuting those cases as well and to taking a step back and reexamining our historic and systemic faults without doing both we cannot move forward.”

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury was present to comment further on Schmidt’s past experiences as a Deputy DA and executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. She noted that these experiences “give him a unique understanding of both the shortcomings and restorative potential of the system and the District Attorney’s office.”

Aside from his past experiences, Schmidt is dedicated to addressing systemic racism as seen by his willingness to protect the civil liberties of the George Floyd protesters in Portland last year.

Kafoury notes that Schmidt “brings a profound commitment that meets the urgency of this moment in history, a moment that compels us to build a criminal legal system that is equitable, restorative, and responsive.”

If there was any doubt to Schmidt’s competency as District Attorney, that doubt was laid to rest when he introduced his policy regarding protest related cases in August of last year.

The policy was used as a framework to ensure that civil liberties were protected, that activists were being heard, that DA resources were not wasted, and that the community was protected while the anti-racist movement made strides to address systemic racism.

Kafoury pointed out that Schmidt was appointed by Governor Kate Brown a whole five months before his inauguration and stated, “Mike has handled his sudden transition with grace while wasting no time in confronting the challenges of a tumultuous summer.”

Community Healing Initiative Family Care Manager, Babak Zolfaghari-Azar of Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center + Rosemary Anderson High School (POIC + RAHS) took the time to point out Schmidt’s commitment towards reforming the criminal justice system.

During the inauguration Zolfaghari-Azar reminded everyone that Schmidt was a high school teacher in New Orleans before he became a prosecutor in Multnomah County.

He said Schmidt “saw the struggle of his students, he saw the experiences of students interacting with the criminal justice system whether it was as a victim of a crime, a witness of a crime, children of incarcerated parents, and sometimes as defendants. Having seen the struggle, being close to that experience humanized people to Mike.”

Schmidt’s interactions with his former students are what lead him to his current beliefs on crime, justice and public safety. Zolfaghari-Azar states that Schmidt “understands the complexities of crimes, that you’re better than your worst moment that not one size fits all.”

Schmidt’s compassion will be the driving force behind his work as District Attorney. Zolfaghari-Azar has faith in Schmidt’s work and stated that “he is here to restore a belief that justice and public safety are intertwined with values of accountability, equity, compassion, and healing and that liberty in justice really is for all!”

Schmidt reflected on the past five-months that included the George Floyd protests of Portland. He stated that “the protests taught us lessons we should’ve learned decades ago and that we failed to internalize them.”

He repeated the words “Black Lives Matter, again Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, they matter even when the movement for racial justice drifts from the daily news cycle, they matter when we are distracted, they matter when those of us with power do the hard work of making them matter.”

Schmidt acknowledged there are members in the Multnomah community who do not trust the criminal legal system, noting “I know that for many People of Color calling 911 in an emergency or getting pulled over feels much more dangerous than for someone who looks like me.”

Schmidt vowed to confront the shortcomings of the criminal legal system, restore trust between the justice system and the community, stop criminalizing poverty, and fight systemic racism.

Jose graduated from UC Davis with a BA in Political Science and has interned for the California State Legislature. He is from Rocklin, CA.


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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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