Times are a’Changin’: Statewide Resignations and Standstills

“Resignation” headlines have run rampant over the last few weeks as cries of injustice continue ringing throughout the streets of America where Black Lives Matter protests persist despite a worldwide pandemic. In response to public demands for racial justice and police reform, a handful of Oregon leaders are passing the torch to those they see fit for the challenges ahead. Meanwhile, others stay staunch in their roles, despite public demands for resignation.  

Gresham  

After 13 years of service, Shane Bemis has resigned as mayor of the city of Gresham. Bemis’ resignation follows the resignations of Gresham’s City Manager Erik Kvarsten last Monday, and the city’s Police Chief Robin Sells last Thursday.  

Announced via a Facebook post on Tuesday, Bemis is encouraging 47-year-old black Gresham resident and business owner Travis Stovall to run for the position.   

Stovall moved from Kansas City to Multnomah County in 2006. Since then, he has performed various roles in the community as the president of the board of directors on the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce, as a board member on multiple organizations including TriMet, and as the former director of the East Metro Economic Alliance. Presently, Stovall is the co-founder and CEO of tech company eRep, which assists businesses with talent and management services.  

“Travis has been intricately involved in the City of Gresham, serving on committees ranging from public safety, to affordable housing and community development,” wrote Bemis.  

In a recent article by Pamplin Media Group, Stovall described his reaction to watching the murder of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I’ve seen many things in my lifetime,” Stovall remarked, “but the situation with George Floyd has impacted me differently. We as black men are feeling that could have been anyone of us. In that moment the officer was judge, jury and executioner.”  

Stovall confided to the media outlet the bias and discrimination he regularly faces as a black man in America. “Every morning I wake up… knowing I have to earn the right to be considered a person who can contribute.”  

In the weeks before his resignation, Bemis worked with Gresham leadership, and in solidarity with protestors, to advance changes toward racial equality. This includes ongoing dialogue between city councilors and black leaders, and a pending review of Gresham Police Department policies with a special focus on use-of-force.  

“It is going to be tough work, but we have a moral imperative,” Bemis remarked. “I am fully aware of where we are and that actions are required. Not everyone is going to be supportive — and I don’t care.”  

By “making way for new leaders,” Bemis hopes his resignation makes room for more needed changes.  

Multnomah District Attorney  

As for Multnomah County at large, District Attorney Rod Underhill announced last Tuesday he would be resigning from office on July 31. Elected to take over the position in 2021, progressive candidate Mike Schmidt could take office five months earlier than expected, as Underhill encouraged Gov. Kate Brown to appoint Schmidt starting August 1.  

Referencing current Black Lives Matter protests, Underhill wrote in a letter to staff, “We are in the midst of what I hope and believe will be monumental and lasting societal change. And while I welcome that challenge and that change, I must be honest with myself and with you. My term expires in six months; it would be shortsighted of me and unfair to the office and our community to spend my remaining time advocating for and enacting that strategic vision, and then looking to DA-Elect Schmidt to begin that process anew, and potentially differently, in January.”  

When appointed to the DA position, Schmidt will resign from his current role as executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which tracks and collects data on criminal justice in Oregon. Among his goals as DA are repealing voter-approved mandatory minimum sentences, diverse workforce hires, and the elimination of cash bail. He also aims to reduce the county’s incarcerated population, address racial disparities, and increase accountability among law enforcement.   

A staunch advocate for a data-informed approach to criminal justice, Schmidt told OPB, “I prosecuted in [the Multnomah] office from 2007 to 2013, and we never used data. You really can’t say that you want to improve criminal justice outcomes if you have no idea what the current outcomes you’re getting are.”  

Portland  

In Portland, former Police Chief Jami Resch recently stepped down after only a handful of months in office, handing the position to 46-year-old black lieutenant Chuck Lovell.  

Lovell was hired to the force in 2002, and is now the city’s fourth black police chief.  

Resch remarked that Lovell “is the exact right person at the exact right moment,” and further described him as “compassionate, humble, [and] genuine to the core.”   

“If I in some small way could be the start for some community healing,” commented Lovell, “it was my duty to do that.”  

Changes in policing have already begun under Lovell’s leadership. Mayor Ted Wheeler announced the discontinuation of the school resource officer program in three city districts after Portland Public Schools announced its termination of contract with PPB. Two specialty PPB units, criticized for targeting people of color, are also being eliminated the Gun Violence Reduction Team and the Transit Division. Lovell announced that officers will be reassigned to other duties.  

On Wednesday, it was announced that the Portland city council is defunding the police by $15 million. Still, many activists are demanding a $50 million budget cut to the bureau, whose current budget is $241.5 million  

Pressure continues from protestors and activists for the removal or resignation of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. At a Black Lives Matter protest last week, Wheeler was met with a crowd of predominantly young protestors, demanding his resignation. Since then, over 12,000 people have signed a petition asking Wheeler to resign.  

Intending to remain in office, Wheeler told OPB, “My role here is to listen. To understand, and make the changes the public demands.” He further acknowledged his status as a middle-aged, white man from an affluent background.  

Wheeler has faced public outrage in large part due to his refusal to ban tear gas, which has been used routinely against Portland protestors. Despite Wheeler calling the use of tear gas “ugly” and “not focused enough,” he has yet to issue a full ban.  

Injuries to two Portland reporters by police were also recently reported, despite the reporters disclosing their media status to officers. Both reporters said they were met with profane language by the officers after identifying themselves as press. Oregonian journalist Beth Nakamura recalled being hit with a baton, and Portland Tribune reporter Zane Sparling said he was shoved into a wall then struck by a crowd control munition.  

Wheeler responded to the incidents via twitter, calling them alarming, while the city’s police spokesperson Lt. Tina Jones ensured that PPB will work with media agents to ensure proper safety and protection.  

Washington County  

In Washington County, Sheriff Pat Garrett is under scrutiny after a mysterious email newsletter from the sheriff’s office reached nearly 40,000 subscribers. The newsletter read, “Sheriff Garrett: It’s time to resign,” and featured a widely criticized video of Deputy Rian Alden using force against inmate Albert Molina in 2018.  

“In response to multiple credible accusations of racism, Sheriff Garrett and his team have opted to protect their violent deputies over communities of color,” read the newsletter.  

Hours later, a message was sent out from the sheriff’s office explaining that someone had obtained the distribution list and that the email did not come from an internal source. Garret made no response as to the call to resign.  

In the video, Alden is seen rushing up to Molina before slamming the inmate against a wall and onto the ground, then restraining Molina as he lay motionless. Alden was suspended on May 31, after the discovery of an alleged racist email he sent in 2013. Soon after, the county District Attorney’s Office reopened the use-of-force case involving Molina – after declining to prosecute Alden in 2018.  

Mayor of Hillsboro Steve Callaway recently tweeted, “I am glad [deputy Alden] has finally been indicted. That it took two years illustrates the issues around transparency and accountability that we need to act on immediately as we collectively rethink what it means to provide equitable public safety services in our community and in communities across the nation.”  

By Stevie Beisswanger