Portland, OR – Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has fired a longtime member of the police department for leaking a report that mistakenly identified anti-police Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty as the suspect in a hit-and-run collision.
Portland Police Bureau (PPB) Officer Brian Hunzeker, former president of the Portland Police Association (PPA) who served the police department for over 21 years, had no prior history of disciplinary actions during his decades of service, PPB Chief Charles Lovell noted in a Feb. 25 memo.
An internal investigation determined the decorated officer accessed confidential information that was part of an ongoing investigation and disseminated that information to the media, violating multiple department policies, according to the memo.
The findings of the investigation were analyzed by the Police Review Board on Oct. 20, 2021.
Three board members recommended Officer Hunzeker be suspended without pay for two weeks, one recommended he be suspended without pay for three weeks, and one recommended he be suspended without pay for at least three weeks or “termination if the Chief wished to impose termination,” according to the Feb. 25 memo.
Chief Lovell noted in the memo that he had personally sat down with Officer Hunzeker as part of the disciplinary process.
“During our meeting, you shared with me your devotion to duty and those you serve, the difficulties you faced in your new position as Portland Police Association president, and your intentions and motivation in sharing the information with [The Oregonian reporter Maxine] Bernstein,” the chief wrote.
“You denied having acted with malice or motive to harm Commissioner Hardesty. You described your decision and actions as naïve and admitted that sharing the information was wrong…You denied engaging in retaliatory conduct towards Commissioner Hardesty. You expressed regret for your decisions and accepted responsibility for disseminating confidential information in violation of Bureau policy,” Chief Lovell added.
Officer Hunzeker also expressed a desire to apologize to Hardesty since he was unable to speak to her due to the ongoing investigation.
Chief Lovell ultimately recommended Officer Hunzeker be suspended for 12 weeks without pay, according to the memo.
Wheeler overrode the chief’s recommendation on Monday, Willamette Week reported.
“You and I agree about this matter in all points, except that in balance, I think that the seriousness of the conduct warrants termination rather than a 12-week suspension,” Wheeler wrote in an email to Chief Lovell.
“With all respect to you as the Chief, I cannot support a suspension in this case due to the harm caused by his conduct and the egregiousness of his actions,” the mayor declared. “I therefore must direct you to change the outcome from a lengthy suspension to termination.”
Wheeler and Chief Lovell notified Officer Hunzeker of his firing in a letter later the same day.
“While you did not agree that your actions were retaliatory, based upon the information and statements contained in the record, I find that your actions violated the retaliation policy because of your admission in the investigation that you were motivated in part because of Commissioner Hardesty’s comments about the police during the 2020 protests,” they said in the letter.
The mayor apologized to Hardesty on behalf of the PPB and said the now-former officer’s actions “amounted to retaliation against a democratically elected member of the City Council due to her criticisms of the police bureau,” Willamette Week reported.
“Officer Hunzeker’s actions harmed Commissioner Hardesty and harmed the community’s trust in the Police Bureau,” Wheeler declared.
Hunzeker’s attorney did not respond for a request for comment, according to Willamette Week.
The former officer can appeal the decision, but it is unclear if he intends to do so.
Current PPA President Aaron Schmautz blasted the longtime officer’s firing, arguing that he “owned his mistake and held himself accountable by stepping down as union president,” Willamette Week reported.
“The city’s own investigation does not support the allegation that Officer Hunzeker retaliated against Commissioner Hardesty; he was not motivated by malice or bad intent,” Schmautz said. “In firing Officer Hunzeker, the city has inappropriately turned accountability into punitive sanctions. That is a step too far; one that is unsupported by facts, reason, and objectivity.”
Hardesty filed a $5 million lawsuit against the PPA, Hunzeker, the city, and another PPB officer on Dec. 13, 2021, alleging they all played a role in leaking the report that incorrectly implicated her, Willamette Week reported.
The commissioner is seeking $3 million in damages from the PPA, as well as $1 million from Hunzeker, $1 million from PPB Officer Kerri Ottoman, and a single dollar from the City of Portland.
Hardesty was tied to the March 3, 2021 hit-and-run after Evelyn Ellis called 911 and reported that her vehicle had been rear-ended earlier in the night by a woman she recognized as Hardesty, Willamette Week reported.
Evelyn Ellis told police she was “starstruck” because she believed the person who hit her vehicle was the well-known city commissioner.
The lawsuit filed by Hardesty claimed that officers showed up at her home at approximately 1 a.m. on March 4 and “banged loudly on the door, waking her neighbors,” according to the lawsuit.
“This conduct by PPB officers was a discriminatory, retaliatory and unwarranted overreaction,” the complaint alleged.
PPB investigators determined less than 24 hours later that the hit-and-run driver was a woman from Vancouver, Washington and that Hardesty had nothing to do with the crash, Willamette Week reported.
By that time, the information provided by Evelyn Ellis had already been leaked and several news outlets that had already reported on Hardesty’s alleged involvement.
“The leaks alleged herein by the individual defendants to sources outside the city violated both city policy and Oregon law,” Hardesty’s lawsuit claimed. “None of the individuals who leaked the information were legally authorized to leak this information, and all are subject to discipline…for their leaks of confidential information.”
Stephen Brischetto and Matthew Ellis, the attorneys representing Hardesty, alleged in a statement late last year that the commissioner was targeted by police, Willamette Week reported.
“Commissioner Hardesty’s advocacy for true police accountability and reform makes her Public Enemy No. 1 for many at the PPB and PPA,” Brischetto and Matthew Ellis declared. “Yet, despite attempts to punish her for her advocacy and force her out of office in retribution for her tireless and effective advocacy, Commissioner Hardesty will not be silenced.”
“In the spirit of transparency, accountability, and justice, we look forward to her day in court when she can tell her side of this story to a jury of her peers,” the statement read.
The lawsuit alleged that police targeted Hardesty because she is black, KPTV reported.
“The leaks of information were made because of race and in retaliation for plaintiff’s years of opposing race discrimination by the PPB and members of the PPA,” the complaint read. “The leaks of information were made with actual malice because they were done with either knowledge that the statements were false or with reckless disregard of whether the statements were false or not.”
Hunzeker resigned from his position as the PPA president in March, Willamette Week reported.
His resignation was tied to a “serious, isolated mistake” linked to the leak about the crash, the PPA said.
“By Hunzeker’s leaking false and racially motivated information that plaintiff was involved in criminal activity, [the PPA] discriminated against plaintiff because of plaintiff’s race, and for her opposition to race discrimination by its members,” Hardesty’s lawsuit read.
Officer Ottoman has been accused of leaking information to Coalition to Save Portland co-founder Gabriel Johnson, who subsequently broadcasted the false claim about Hardesty in a Facebook Live video called “Scandal at City Council. Guess Who? Commissioner Hardesty,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit further claimed the PPA, Hunzeker, and Officer Ottoman were trying to run Hardesty out of City Hall, Willamette Week reported.
“Defendants’ disclosures were also factually false, made with reckless disregard for the truth and were designed to cause significant emotional distress to plaintiff and to force plaintiff’s removal from public office,” it read.
Hardesty has demanded a declaration that the city violated her right “to be free from race-based discrimination and retaliation” in addition to the $1 in monetary damages, Willamette Week reported.