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Law

Portland police investigation clears officer who joined Oath Keepers militia

File photo from April 2018 of the Portland Police Bureau.
Abigail Winn
/
File photo from April 2018 of the Portland Police Bureau.

A Portland Police Bureau investigation concluded that one of its officers did not violate professional conduct directives when he joined the Oath Keepers in 2018.

A monthlong internal affairs investigation that concluded in December confirmed Officer Joseph Webber joined the militia. In an interview explaining his membership in the group, Webber told investigator Stacey Rovinelli that 2018 “was kind of hard times for law enforcement.”

“I heard they were pro-law enforcement,” Webber told Rovinelli. “So, I looked at their website, nothing bad because I’m obviously, like, trying not to associate with anything bad. They looked okay. They were pro-Constitution and things like that.”

The Oath Keepers are an anti-government militia group founded in 2009 that recruits people with experience in law enforcement and the military to prepare for what the organization characterizes as an inevitable armed conflict with the U.S. government.

The Oath Keepers have faced intense scrutiny for years because of extremist activity, but that attention reached a new height after federal prosecutors alleged the group helped organize the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. This week, the U.S. House committee investigating the attack revealed startling details about the group’s efforts during the insurrection, including that they coordinated with the Proud Boys and Trump allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn. Court records have also revealed the Oath Keepers brought explosives to D.C. prior to Jan. 6 and staged an armed quick reaction force just outside the city.

The investigation into Webber was prompted by an OPB investigation of leaked Oath Keepers membership data that revealed over two dozen current and former law enforcement officers in Oregon had joined the group since its founding.

While speaking to investigators, Webber said he found nothing useful in the Oath Keepers’ website forum and did nothing further with the group. He denied still being a member.

Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 others have been charged with seditious conspiracy for their role in the insurrection. Two pleaded guilty, while Rhodes and eight others pleaded not guilty.

In the internal affairs investigation, Webber described the militia’s role on Jan. 6 as “dumb stuff.”

Portland city officials initially denied a public records request to review the police bureau’s investigation, arguing it was exempt from public disclosure because Webber was not disciplined.

“Airing such investigations when there have been no findings of misconduct only serves to demoralize City employees,” Deputy City Attorney Fallon Niedrist argued.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt disagreed, finding the public interest outweighed “the minimal, if any, additional invasion of privacy that will be caused by release of the investigation report in this case.”

The bureau’s professional conduct directive calls on officers to “refrain from conduct that unduly affects Bureau operations or unduly erodes public trust.”

In his interview with Rovinelli, Webber acknowledged that membership in the Oath Keepers could discredit the bureau and city.

“If you were a member, it could,” Webber told her.

Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, the president of the union representing rank and file officers, added that groups “purport one ideation and then change over time,” the report said.

As part of her investigation, Rovinelli also spoke to a police bureau public information officer, and attempted to obtain Oath Keepers membership source data from OPB, which OPB declined. Rovinelli eventually obtained that data directly from the group that released the hacked Oath Keepers data. She confirmed the data contained Webber’s email address and cellphone number.

After committing four pages of her 10-page report to a timeline of Oath Keepers activity starting in 2011, Rovinelli concludes Webber may not have known about the militia’s extremist activity in 2018 because information on the group “was muddled.”

“Searching for articles prior to 2020 and 2021 was difficult because so many have been recently written,” Rovinelli wrote in her investigation. “The current data is skewed toward the fact that the Oath Keepers is an extreme radical right wing group.”

Despite the assertion, a search of pre-2019 headlines clearly documents the group’s extremist ideology and reveals numerous instances of political violence.

Months after the group’s founding, a 2010 New York Times article about how the Tea Party had “lit a fuse for rebellion” described the Oath Keepers as part of a resurgent militia movement.

The following month, a Mother Jones article described the Oath Keepers as “a fast-growing ‘patriot’ group that’s recruiting soldiers to resist the Obama administration.”

A 2014 New York Times article describes how the Ferguson, Missouri, police were uncomfortable with the Oath Keepers providing local security during the protests against the police killing of Michael Brown.

A January 2016 New York Times article describes the Oath Keepers as “members of the so-called Patriot movement, an umbrella effort of antigovernment activists.”

A January 2016 OPB article described how members of the Oath Keepers inserted themselves as a self-declared buffer between federal law enforcement and militia groups occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The same article describes the Oath Keepers’ role leading the 2015 armed confrontation between the militia and Bureau of Land Management at Sugar Pine Mine in Southern Oregon as well as the group’s unsolicited decision to provide armed security at a military recruiting station in Bend.

And a January 2017 New York Times article describes the Oath Keepers’ involvement in violent far right demonstrations in Berkeley, California, and New Orleans, Louisiana.

“The question here is whether his membership, alone, in the Oath Keepers is a violation of the directive,” Rovinelli wrote, saying his $50 membership in the group did not affect Bureau operations or erode public trust. “I do not believe that one day of membership to view informational forums and not participating in any events constitutes unprofessional conduct.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jonathan Levinson