Podcast: Portland Police Officer and City Council Candidate Eli Arnold

    Eli Arnold in the BikePortland Shed, April 1st, 2024. (Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

    It took over a month for me to agree to interview Portland City Council candidate Eli Arnold. When most candidates reach out and ask for an interview, I reply much sooner and am eager to connect, either for a recorded conversation or an appearance at Bike Happy Hour.

    But Arnold was different — because he’s a Portland Police officer.

    10 years ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about interviewing him or helping him connect to our community. Personally, I’ve always had very strong mixed feelings about police in our city, but I’ve also maintained working relationships with them. Here are just a few examples: In 2005, BikePortland’s first year, I sat down with a Traffic Division commander; I’ve done two ride-alongs, one in a patrol car, the other on a bike; I’ve advocated for more bike-mounted officers; published a guest article by a former officer (hi Robert!); and in 2015, I worked closely with the Portland Police Bureau to launch the (now defunct) Bike Theft Task Force.

    But in recent years, my opinion of policing — and the PPB in particular — has soured. I participated in several of the Black Lives Matter protests as a Portlander and as a journalist between June 2020 and April 2021 and I currently have no contact with the bureau or any of its officers.

    That why I’ve watched Eli Arnold’s candidacy for council District 4 (Sellwood, Eastmoreland, and everything west of the Willamette River) with interest. When he requested an interview last month, I thought about it for a long time before saying, “yes.”

    I understand the risks of platforming a police officer in our current political climate. But as I weighed my decision, nothing emerged from my own thoughts or from what I’d seen or heard or researched about Arnold, that I considered to be disqualifying. Please note: Those two previous sentences do not encapsulate all my thoughts about Arnold or this interview and I’m happy to talk about them further in person, in the comments below, or wherever else. In the end, my gut told me I should talk to him and share our conversation with you.

    We covered a lot of ground in the interview. I wanted to make it relevant and worthwhile in terms of the big issues, while also touching on Arnold’s cycling perspective and giving you a sense of who he is beyond his uniform.

    “It’s the equation for photosynthesis, escape velocity and the Drake equation…and giant Sequoia tree paired up with a Saturn five rocket.”
    He rolled up to the Shed in north Portland from Sellwood on his Trek Alpha.

    Here’s a brief list of what we talked about:

    • Arnold’s experience on the bike squad.
    • Why Arnold started a community garden in his Savannah, GA neighborhood in 2014.
    • Why I’m skeptical he can be trusted to be a city leader with only Army and police experience.
    • How the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014 inspired Arnold to become a cop.
    • What he thinks about Former City Councilor Jo Ann Hardesty’s violence prevention tactics.
    • Policing in Portland and Arnold’s ideas for improving it.
    • What the big tattoo on his arm is all about (it’s related to his love of science fiction).
    • Why he thinks the we need more police — despite the problems on our streets being one of mental health, addiction, and other issues police are not suited to address.
    • How he’d approach traffic safety and his ideas to save lives.
    • and much more.

    Listen in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts. You can hear an audio sample below or on Instagram. I’ve also pasted several exchanges below (edited for clarity):

    [00:05:21] Jonathan Maus: When did you get to Portland and how did you decide to become a police officer here?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I got to Portland in 2015. I was just looking for something community oriented to do… Actually the first job I applied for was to be the head of the community garden program in Portland. I was not hired. Then I applied to be a background investigator the police bureau and somebody at that was like, ‘Why in the world are you not applying to be a police officer?’ And I had gone on a ride-along a few years prior, and prior to that no interest in the field. But it was really interesting actually. And so this guy talked me into it and I went ahead and applied.”

    [00:07:16] Jonathan Maus: I think for a lot of people in America, [the response in Ferguson, MO to the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer] was when they started getting skeptical and negative about policing, maybe for the first time in their life, and it kicked off a lot of the turmoil of the next decade. I know you were in the Army, so you’re sort of in a law enforcement profession to some degree. Do you think that’s why that you leaned into policing in that moment instead of maybe coming away from it like a lot of people did?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I think the conclusion I reached was just that, this is important. Do it [policing] well or bad, there’s huge consequences. And so, you know, I think what attracted me as a young person to the military was, we’re going to deal with life and death stuff. We’re going to deal with big things. And I think my particular nature, uh, sort of suits me to certain things. I’m very non-reactive. So, you know, like flying a [night vision goggles] mission in Afghanistan doesn’t do much to me. An so I thought, you know, here’s the thing that maybe I’m suited to. So I guess it did have some appeal as like, I think I could do a good job at this.”

    [00:14:52] Jonathan Maus: You mentioned the capacity issue with the police, but it seems to me that the issues on the street are issues that would be better solved by people that aren’t police officers. So whatever it is, social workers, something like Portland Street Response and other alternatives, right? So how do you balance those two proposals that you’re talking about — where you want to go back to more police yet you’re also saying you’re identifying all the problems police should be really responding to begin with?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I think we need both. I think just on the purely police side, we just don’t have the capacity we need to do the work that people deserve when they’re the victim of a crime.”

    Jonathan Maus: Saying you want both is a nice, easy thing to say, but politics is about making choices. And I think some people listening to this may hear that answer and think, well, one of the reasons we can’t do some of the alternative care is because there’s so much focus and attention and money going into the policing and the staffing of police… Why should we increase the amount of officers in this city given the track record, given the distrust, given the lack of substantive reforms, even in the last few years?

    Eli Arnold:

    “Yeah. well, I think policing’s kind of a black box to a lot of people. It’s something most people don’t have very much experience with… I think the way that you improve a lot of this is by improving service. And you can’t improve service if you don’t have the staff… I think doing the job right requires the people, requires the time, requires the follow-up… So I really think we need those increases in the short-run. What we’re looking for are ways to reduce strain on that system and sort of deal with the surrounding issues.”

    [00:20:04] Jonathan Maus: And for that, people I think reasonably should want something in return. And I’m just wondering, what are those meaningful reforms been to make it so that the Portland Police Bureau deserves that extra capacity, which is a lot of extra money from the community?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I will just tell you my experience coming in. I think a lot has changed in policing over the last 20 years. I learned about policing after becoming one, and the history really is that 40 years ago, there were no rules… And so we’ve been gradually moving from a complete free-for-all, total authority within the police system, to something much more regulated. And I think the West Coast is actually kind of leading the way with that, especially with the Ninth Circuit being so interested in sort of limitations and competing concerns… And I think the Portland Police Bureau, ten years ago, doesn’t look like the one that exists today.”

    [00:25:39] Jonathan Maus: What can Portland do to prevent people from dying and getting hurt on the streets [in traffic crashes]?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I don’t wanna sound like a broken record, but I think it was 55% of the pedestrian deaths last year were from the homeless population. Again, I think the current free-for-all camping deal is killing people and I have I have seen myself somebody panhandling on a street and, we’ve got an intoxicated driver and you know, they die. There’s a there’s a spot off [Hwy] 99 just south of Ross Island Bridge. There’s a camp like tunneled under the highway and people constantly wandering across the highway all hours of the day and that’s gonna result in deaths. I’ve also seen somebody coming off 26th into downtown, you know, drive up onto the tents on the sidewalk before. If we can just put people in shelters or put them in camps in safer areas, we can really reduce that. So that’s really like, first in my mind.”

    [00:38:57] Jonathan Maus: Did you work the protests when they were happening downtown?… When you think back to the protests, is that something that you feel some pride in Portland, or was that a moment of shame and something that was the wrong thing to do? How do you remember that, that moment?

    Eli Arnold:

    “You know, I think it’s a very messy moment. I don’t think it’s singular enough to just feel one way about it. I think it’s appropriate to feel every kind of way about it. And so to me, I’m almost resistant, to drawing a conclusion or an easy narrative out of it. It feels like a family fight, you know, like after it doesn’t feel good. You know, we’re all still here together. We need to move forward.”

    [00:40:02] Jonathan Maus: One of your quotes that stood out to me is when you said, “Being a police officer is like being a community dad at-large.” That’s a nice image of policing, but if you look at things like use-of-force and all these other things, it doesn’t necessarily match the reality. Someone that’s been trained and has your [military and police] background is the opposite of a community dad in my opinion. How do you alleviate that concern of mine?

    Eli Arnold:

    “Well, first, I don’t think it’s the opposite of community dad. What is a parent? A parent is somebody who provides safety, but also deals with all those other little things, when somebody’s hurt, when somebody’s lost or they need some talking to, or some assistance. I mean, so much of what police end up doing is just not criminal, right? It’s looking after people because you just happen to be who’s out there. I’ve had elderly people with dementia who didn’t know where they lived and you, you’ve just got to solve that problem for for someone. And that’s why I describe it like that.

    Obviously, sometimes you are dealing with violence or, or with other things. You know, I think policing a core function of the city. It’s a very important function and it’s important function to get right. And yeah, I understand your concern.

    I think the thing about it though, is everything benefits from some understanding of the nuance that comes with first-hand experience. And we’re going to have a 12 person council, and the question is, will we have one person who is familiar with it in a way that isn’t vague or, or who can predict how a policy might impact some of that first responder world.

    And so I think it’s an asset. And you know, this is a job I’ve done for seven years. It’s not my whole identity. It’s just something I went and did. And I’ve learned a lot — from mental illness to addiction issues, to how policies are playing out in the city. And so my intention is to sort of just take that and bring that to the table when we’re looking at those issues.”

    [00:43:13] Jonathan Maus: But wouldn’t it make more sense for you to be advocating for more mental health responders, social workers, and those kind of things — and not necessarily more police?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I mean, I think we’ve got to get the whole ecosystem right. One thing I’m doing is I’m going to be going on a ride-along with the Portland Street Response next week, because I think Portland Street Response has been one of these groups that suffered from our tendency to fight over these things ideologically and I haven’t heard a whole lot of people talking about, like, practically, how can we refine this tool and make it the most useful thing it can be?”

    [00:44:36] Jonathan Maus: Is there anything about policing in Portland that you would be willing to say is not going well right now?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I think there’s some room for improvement in some things, absolutely. One thing I’d like to see is like better customer service. I think there’s some ways that can be approached. You know, so much of it is actually about communication… I spent a lot of time thinking about it… Simple things like people will call 911 and say, ‘I see something happening. It’s of concern, but I don’t need to be called back.’ I’m always calling that person back. I want you to know you called, we heard you, I went, here’s what’s going on. I just think being better about those kinds of things is important for the community.”

    [00:46:01] Jonathan Maus: I’m hearing candidates say, ‘Let’s get Portland back to normal. Let’s get Portland, back to some other thing,’ some heyday or whatever. What does that mean to you? What does Portland need to get back to in your mind?

    Eli Arnold:

    “When I got back here in 2015 it felt pleasant and optimistic in a way that I think it doesn’t to a lot of people right now. I’m actually hopeful we are kind of starting an upswing. I think we just need to sustain, you know, make some improvements, but I think we’re going to see improvements here in the next couple of years.

    But really, I don’t think it’s about looking backwards, it’s about maybe missing some fundamentals that we had well-covered in the past. I think continuing to be a progressive, forward-looking place requires that we knock out those basics that free us up to experiment and enjoy blazing a path forward.”

    [00:48:27] Jonathan Maus: Can I read you a quote that you shared on Instagram? You said you enjoy painting because, “To really see a thing changes the observed and the observer too. It’s been true for me. Responding to 911 calls, seeing the city at its best and its worst has changed me. I think our question now is, what are we going to do to find meaning and purpose when things feel stuck?”

    So, what are we going to do, Eli?

    Eli Arnold:

    “I think we double down, right? We commit to the place and we say. ‘Yeah, how do we make this a great place for everybody?’ A place where you can push a stroller and feel good about it. Where the park down the street from your house is like a wonderful place to be on a sunny day.

    There’s a weight in the air I feel like in Portland and I’d love to see it clear. And I think just by doubling-down and focusing on those basics, we can, we can do that relatively quickly.”

    If you want to meet Arnold in person, along with Multnomah County Commission candidate Jessie Burke and City Council D2 candidate Mariah Hudson — and learn some Portland civics at the same time — check out this event on Sunday, April 14th.

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