As protests against police violence continued into a third week across the U.S., Deschutes County’s outspoken district attorney, John Hummel, held a press conference Monday afternoon that looked and felt like a protest.
Sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, while a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, Bend has hosted several large rallies calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality, drawing in some cases more than 1,000 people.
On Monday, about 125 people gathered in the unseasonable cold on a lawn off the Deschutes County Courthouse. They held signs reading, “Racism is a pandemic too,” “I can’t breathe” — a reference to Floyd’s last words — and simply, “Breonna Taylor,” a black woman killed in her home in March by Louisville, Kentucky, police officers. Before Hummel took the lectern, they chanted, “Black lives matter.”
“I’ve learned a lot these last two weeks, and my biggest takeaway is to embrace uncomfortable conversations,” Hummel said. “I guarantee everyone here — and you all know this — that if people hadn’t taken to the streets and if things weren’t broken and fires weren’t started, we would not be getting the change we’re seeing.”
Over an hour, Hummel called for the repeal of the death penalty and Oregon’s Measure 11, which mandates lengthy minimum sentences for serious crimes. He called for an end to police union agreements that prohibit interviewing officers involved in deadly force incidents within 24, 48 or 72 hours, also called “48-hour rules,” and the establishment of a law requiring police to report misconduct.
Just after Hummel began his remarks, Katherine Griffith, a local public defender, interrupted him, saying, “John Hummel, your words are not enough.”
Griffith outlined several complaints with the DA’s office, including saying that Hummel pays lip service to reform while his prosecutors act another way in court, and that he downplays police violence in the media. When Griffith was finished, she walked away with around 15 fellow public defenders.
Members of the crowd shouted questions at Hummel over high winds. They asked about recent allegations by a former prosecutor who left the DA’s office after less than a year and intends to sue for alleged racism and bullying in the office. He was asked why he doesn’t demand the region’s two largest law enforcement agencies, Bend Police Department and Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, employ body cameras.
Earlier in his remarks, Hummel proposed the Oregon Legislature should establish a fund to help local agencies purchase body cameras, among other reforms.
He also pledged to accept no donations from law enforcement unions, law enforcement officers and defense attorneys.
Hummel frequently returned to the theme of “doing better.” For one, he said he can do better communicating with the public, and one way to start is by spreading his reach on social media.
“I know I sound like an old guy when I say I’m going to start a Twitter account,” he said. “Maybe I should be starting a TikTok account.”
Jasmine Wright identified herself as a victim of sexual assault and asked Hummel several pointed questions about her case. She asked why it took more than a year to prosecute her two abusers. She asked why one of them, a man with a criminal record, was offered a generous plea deal, and why the jury in her case consisted of 10 men and two women.
“White men are not being held accountable like black men are,” Wright said to loud applause.
Hummel said he was unfamiliar with Wright’s case but that he would look into it. He pivoted to discuss how the jury system makes it more difficult for people with low-paying jobs to take time off to serve jury duty. Instead, juries are over-represented with working professionals and retirees, making it more difficult for defendants to be judged by a jury of their “peers,” Hummel said.
A former defense attorney and Bend city councilor, Hummel is in his second term as DA. His press conferences are typically attended by only a handful of media representatives and police officers.
“We only had a few days’ notice with this,” he told The Bulletin. “Maybe if we had had a week, we could have got a thousand people to show up.”