Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury statement on Multnomah County Sheriff's Review
In early September, 2020, record-breaking wildfires raged across our state. They spread rapidly, engulfing entire communities, destroying homes and taking lives. An estimated 40,000 people fled or were evacuated, with many of them seeking shelter with friends, family, or local relief agencies in Multnomah County.
In the midst of this chaotic time, misinformation was being spread on Facebook and other online sources by people wrongly claiming that the fires in Oregon, which were mostly the result of lightning strikes, had been human-caused, specifically by members of “antifa.’’ This was not true. But, as distressed as I was by these conspiracy theories, there were soon widely reported instances of private citizens setting up armed roadblocks in response in and around the east Multnomah County town of Corbett. Armed individuals reportedly stopped vehicles traveling through the community, purportedly to protect the community from outsiders. Among those stopped were evacuees fleeing the wildfires. There were also news reports that Multnomah County Sheriff Deputies failed to stop such illegal roadblocks, and directed these individuals in how they could conduct stops and surveillance in the area.
I said at the time — and I will say again — that I will absolutely not tolerate vigilantism of any kind in Multnomah County, especially when it further traumatizes people escaping disaster. I was deeply concerned by reports that the words of some Multnomah County Sheriff’s staff were interpreted by some residents as support or encouragement for roadblocks and vigilante patrols. And I was further distressed to read news accounts of the travelers stopped or approached by these roadblocks, including families, women alone and people of color, who said they felt threatened and unsafe.
Given the troubling, but incomplete picture of what transpired, I asked Sheriff Mike Reese to investigate the matter so the Board of County Commissioners could have a full understanding of what took place.
Based on my conversations with Sheriff Reese, and after receiving a full accounting of the timeline and the Office’s internal review, I want to acknowledge the following:
Multnomah County Sheriff Deputies did not encourage private citizens to set up armed roadblocks in the Corbett area. In response to suspicious activity, the Sheriff increased patrols of the area. Deputies on duty responded to reports of blockades and informed the responsible individuals that they did not have the legal authority to stop people.
Shortly after learning of the first reported roadblocks and related activity on Sept. 11, the Sheriff’s Office published messages on social media condemning the illegal activity and urging the public to report suspicious activity to law enforcement, and to not take action on their own.
The Sheriff issued a public video statement on Sept. 12 expressly to discourage vigilantism, saying that anyone stopping other vehicles or demanding identification in the Corbett area would be subject to citation or arrest.
Following that statement, deputies came upon another roadblock, arresting three individuals and issuing criminal citations. Those cases are still pending.
Deputies attending a highly publicized community meeting were attempting to strike a balance between assuaging people on edge after a small fire caused by illegal fireworks a few days prior (bringing back memories of the human-caused Eagle Creek Fire in 2017) and conveying how residents could legally respond to suspicious behavior by recording license plates and taking photographs.
The review found MCSO deputies responded in a professional manner that did not violate any laws or standards of misconduct. I also believe this underscores how imperative it is for law enforcement to communicate clearly in times of crisis and reassure the entire community.
Knowing the Sheriff’s deep concern about gun violence, I have also asked that he reiterate to staff that deputies should discourage any person from bringing firearms to resolve community concerns, even if legally allowed. No good will come from armed confrontation and intimidation. And I remain troubled by the fear, misinformation and distrust that set this series of events in motion.
Our fear of wildfire is understandable. But right wing groups from outside our communities preyed on that fear with false claims that “antifa’’ were setting the fires. When the lies were repeated by community leaders and law enforcement in neighboring jurisdictions, they perpetuated a bigger lie that those advocating for criminal justice reform were willing to cause the largest wildfire conflagration in Oregon’s recorded history in the hopes that those actions would somehow achieve their desired ends.
Multnomah County residents can disagree on a wide range of issues, but we cannot allow Facebook-fueled fear, conspiracy theories and malicious actors to drive us to vigilantism. I also believe it’s imperative for the Legislature to re-evaluate the current anti-paramilitary law and look for ways to more explicitly prohibit the types of armed intimidation we’ve too often seen play out in communities across this state.
Oregon will most certainly continue to experience wildfires. Our emergency managers say that the people who survive disasters are those who know, trust and work with their neighbors. This investigation only underscores how critical it is that all of us critically evaluate the information we receive online. It also highlights the essential role that law enforcement can play in mitigating crises when they can communicate expectations clearly, diffuse conflict and hold those who would harm or intimidate others accountable.
Given the current threat that all Multnomah County residents face from the COVID-19 virus, we can’t afford to turn on each other when crisis hits.