Portland police commander Jeff Niiya investigated for texts with far-right group
Department launches probe after messages with right-wing activist Joey Gibson emerge
Lieutenant Jeff Niiya sent numerous messages to Joey Gibson during and after rallies held by his Patriot Prayer group.
The officer was in charge of protests as the head of the department’s rapid response team and, his texts – first obtained by the Willamette Week newspaper – reportedly show him detailing the movement of a rival anti-fascist protest group.
He also congratulated Mr Gibson on his decision to run for an open Senate seat in Washington state.
One text also appeared to warned Mr Gibson that a fellow member of Patriot Prayer could risk arrest by showing up in the state of Oregon.
“The hate against me will multiply because I am running for office, so when I come into Portland and Seattle the energy will be high. I know it’s a pain in the ass for you guys, but I will do the best I can to work with you,” Mr Gibson texted the police lieutenant last January.
After learning Mr Gibson was a candidate, Mr Niiya responded: “I won’t say anything. Thank you for trusting me and letting me know. I appreciate it.”
Portland Police said the texts would be subjected to an internal review following the request from Mayor Ted Wheeler.
It is not unusual for police to talk with those organising protests to work on planning, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organisation tracking hate groups.
But the texts did seem “odd for their chattiness,” she said. While Patriot Prayer is not considered a hate group, its members often align themselves with known hate groups and white supremacists, Ms Beirich added.
The Portland Police Commanding Officers Association said in a statement that Lt Niiya was following orders by establishing communication with Mr Gibson.
Patriot Prayer rallies routinely draw crowds of self-described anti-fascists, who show up in force to try to shut down its leader and his followers. Police have struggled to contain the violent clashes and residents have grown used to events that shut down streets for hours, leave downtown windows shattered and end in open brawls, fires, injuries and dozens of arrests.
Mr Niiya reportedly also texted with an anti-fascist protester in 2017 – communications that led to that person being disowned by her fellow activists.
“Everything was about de-escalating and avoiding conflict. It was his job and he does that with several activists,” Mr Gibson said. “There were several times when he was literally begging for me to leave Portland – and on numerous occasions, I would do it.”
Mr Niiya did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In a statement, Portland’s mayor said police must remain objective and that the texts appear to “cross several boundaries… They also raise questions about whether warrants are being enforced consistently and what information is being shared with individuals who may be subject to arrest”.
Portland’s police chief Danielle Outlaw said in a statement that an internal review would be conducted to determine if policies were violated. “If anything is identified that is deemed outside of our values and directives, it will be addressed,” Ms Outlaw said.
Mr Niiya will no longer work with the department’s rapid response team during the investigation, police said.
Additional reporting by Associated Press