Portland Police lieutenant cleared over messages exchanged with Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson

The bureau also released over 11,500 messages from Lt. Jeff Niiya to Gibson and members of other protest groups

PORTLAND, Ore. — A Portland Police lieutenant who exchanged text messages and phone calls with Patriot Prayer leader and Clark County resident Joey Gibson has been cleared after an internal investigation by the department.

Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson is shown here at a rally earlier this year at WSU Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz
Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson is shown here at a rally earlier this year at WSU Vancouver. Photo by Mike Schultz

Lt. Jeff Niiya and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) came under fire in February when a series of text messages and emails exchanged with Gibson were released to Willamette Week and the Portland Mercury as part of a public records request. The two often exchanged information about where Patriot Prayer would be while in Portland, though the bureau said Niiya’s exchanges were part of his duties as a crowd control liaison meant to reach out to groups on both sides to help with police planning during numerous protests in the city that have frequently turned violent.

“When these text messages were initially released to the public there was a very huge impact on our community,” said Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw at a press conference on Thursday afternoon alongside Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, “not just our external community, but our internal community here in PPB as well, and most specifically Lieutenant Jeff Niiya and his family.”

Outlaw noted the public records request done by Willamette Week and the Mercury were “very narrowly tailored,” specifically for the messages between Gibson and Lieutenant Niiya.

“This generated a lot of concern in the public realm about possible bias or alignment with a particular group and Lieutenant Niiya,” said Outlaw.

The Independent Police Review (IPR) division, made up of civilians appointed by the Portland City Council, examined 11,647 messages between Gibson and Niiya, looking into three specific allegations following the release of the messages.

Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw speaks at a press conference Thursday announcing the conclusion of an investigation into messages between Lieutenant Jeff Niiya and Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson. Photo courtesy Mike Turner, FM News 101/KXL-FM
Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw speaks at a press conference Thursday announcing the conclusion of an investigation into messages between Lieutenant Jeff Niiya and Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson. Photo courtesy Mike Turner, FM News 101/KXL-FM

Those allegations covered whether Lt. Niiya was unprofessional in his communications with Gibson, lost objectivity, or inappropriately disclosed information which allowed anyone to avoid arrest.

“IPR concluded that there was no evidence of a policy violation in any of these three allegations,” said Outlaw, who said she ultimately ruled the allegations to be “unfounded.”

“Perception appeared to be a very strong determining factor during the initial investigation and subsequent levels during the review,” said Outlaw. “However, perception, while extremely critical in earning and maintaining trust within our internal and external communities, is not tangible evidence for the purposes of an administrative investigation. “

Outlaw said that during the investigation the bureau requested that all crowd control liaisons attend training, “but we quickly learned there was no formalized training for liaisons here in the United States.”

The bureau sent representatives to Canada to undergo training there, which was then implemented in Portland ahead of Aug. 17 clashes between several groups. Crowd control liaisons also wore new uniforms at those protests to differentiate them from normal patrol officers.

“We are also undergoing a holistic review of our demonstration response,” said Outlaw, “and this has been done by the National Police foundation.”

The investigative report was more critical in its assessment of what happened.

“Simply put, Lt. Niiya was left to figure it out on his own,” the report reads. “As a result, Lt. Niiya has faced personal criticism, and damage to his professional reputation, in large part because the Police Bureau failed to clearly describe Lt. Niiya’s job to him and failed to provide him training on how he should do it.”

The crowd control liaison position has now been formalized as part of the bureau’s Crisis Negotiation Team, and new guidelines were written to ensure communications they engage in are reviewed by supervisors on a regular basis, said Outlaw.

Lt. Niiya is now part of the bureau’s Professional Standards Division. He was removed from the liaison position after the text messages went public.

Lack of context

Outlaw noted that the messages between Lt. Niiya and Joey Gibson, released as part of the public records request, were “narrow in scope,” and “did not contain an entire picture of the work being performed by Lieutenant Niiya and his role as liaison.”

“This investigation has helped to shed light on his commitment to facilitate the freedom of speech and assembly for many with the overarching goal of maintaining public safety,” concluded Outlaw.

“Text messages were released,” said Wheeler at Thursday’s press conference. “Those text messages, at face value and without much context, were disconcerting to many. And, as you are all aware, the public reaction was swift.”

Wheeler came under fire during the press conference for his remarks in February calling Niiya’s exchanges with Gibson “disturbing,” and indicating he believed a line had been crossed. Wheeler said he believes his comments, which were based on the information he had at the time and the public reaction to them, were understandable and reasonable, as was his call for a full investigation.

“I serve a unique role in this city, and it may be unique amongst mayor’s nationally, I’m both the mayor of the city, and I am the police commissioner,” said Wheeler. “So there is a what I would describe as a challenging balancing act that has to be done fairly. When the text messages were first reported, there was an immediate public reaction, I believe it required my response as both the mayor and the police commissioner in this city.”

Wheeler went on to say that in the months since he made those comments, in light of the full investigation, and following numerous conversations with police officers, he would have approached the situation differently if he were able to do it over again.

“I like to think that I approach this job with humility,” said Wheeler. “In retrospect, it would have been better had I been more overt about giving Lieutenant Niiya the benefit of the doubt.”

Instead, Wheeler was removed from his role as a liaison officer and Wheeler ordered the investigation in February.

“I did this because I knew at the time we did not have a complete picture of what was going on,” said Wheeler. “And the independent investigation revealed that there were no sustained policy violations, in part because Lieutenant Niiya was talking with people on all sides of the demonstration.”

Wheeler said it’s also notable that Niiya appeared to have done a laudable job of upholding the crowd control liaison standards, despite no formalized training on the position.

“It’s important to note that Lieutenant Niiya demonstrated utmost professionalism and full cooperation throughout this investigation,” said the mayor.

One of the most vocal critics of Lt. Niiya’s interactions with Gibson was Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, a frequent critic of the Portland Police Bureau.

Reached on Thursday for comment by KXL News, Hardesty declined to issue an apology.

“If there’s no fault in his comments then fault lies within the process,” Hardesty said in a statement. “I look forward to the National Police Foundation’s independent findings on what Portland Police can put in place to provide better to guidance to officers.”

The “Tiny” problem

On Thursday afternoon, Portland Police posted all of the investigative material as part of its review into Niiya’s contact with Gibson, including 64 pages worth of transcripts from numerous IPR interviews of city and police officials, as well as Lieutenant Niiya.

Perhaps the most talked about message involved one in which Niiya tells Gibson that one of his followers, Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, has a warrant out for his arrest.

“Just make sure he doesn’t do anything that may draw our attention,” Niiya wrote. “If he still has the warrant in the system, I don’t run you guys, so I don’t personally know, the officers could arrest him. I don’t see a need to arrest on the warrant unless there is a reason.”

That message was the one most people latched onto in making the case that Niiya had crossed a line from seeking information on the plans of Patriot Prayer to sharing information in order to help a member of that group avoid arrest.

In his interview with IPR investigator Andrea Damewood, Niiya said he sent the messages in part to potentially keep Toese out of downtown. 

“Hey, if he’s got the warrant, don’t show up,” said the lieutenant. “Makes my life a lot easier.”

Niiya said “Tiny” was also the type of person who, if he were arrested in the midst of a larger group, could spark some backlash from the crowd.

“In fact, I think we arrested him when he did show up on that event,” said Niiya, “but it — the potential there to cause some type of emotional response by people in the crowd, is always

present and we try not to induce that ourselves.”

Approached for his reaction to the findings, Gibson told The Oregonian/OregonLive.com that he’s pleased that Wheeler “for once came out and told the truth.” 

Gibson asserts that Wheeler, as police commissioner, should have known in February that Niiya was speaking with both sides, and forwarding his conversations with the Patriot Prayer leader to a staff member in the mayor’s office.

“He said he made a mistake,” concluded Gibson, “so that’s good.

Gibson and his followers have planned what they are calling a Peaceful Prayer March for this Sunday afternoon at Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland.

More information

As part of its release of the investigation, the bureau released all of the messages sent between Niiya and Gibson, as well as members of other groups involved in recent protests around the city. There are also transcripts of the full investigation, including all interviews, and much more. A link to that information can be found here.

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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