Portland Police Lt. Jake Jensen, a member of St. Pius X Parish, helps lead the bureau’s reaction to downtown protests and riots. “Speak. Fly signs. Yes. It is great that people are trying to coax government into some action,” Jensen said. “But damage property, hurt people, light fires? I cannot support that.” (Courtesy Lt. Jake Jensen)
Portland Police Lt. Jake Jensen, a member of St. Pius X Parish, helps lead the bureau’s reaction to downtown protests and riots. “Speak. Fly signs. Yes. It is great that people are trying to coax government into some action,” Jensen said. “But damage property, hurt people, light fires? I cannot support that.” (Courtesy Lt. Jake Jensen)
Lt. Jake Jensen, a Portland police officer helping lead the bureau’s response to ongoing protests and riots, backs peaceful demonstrations and freedom of expression. It’s when demonstrators dangerously break the law that he snaps into action.

“Portland has a really strong free speech tradition, and I respect people showing up to express their opinions,” said Jensen, a husband and father of two young children and a member of St. Pius X Parish in Northwest Portland. “Our country was founded on the right to free expression.” He knows Oregon’s free speech statutes are even stronger than federal law.

“Speak. Fly signs. Yes. It is great that people are trying to coax government into some action,” said Jensen, acting captain of Portland’s downtown precinct. “But damage property, hurt people, light fires? I cannot support that.”

‘Bigger and greater ideas’

Jensen, talkative and friendly, describes the scene near Portland’s federal courthouse as a puzzling moonscape. Lownsdale Square, a place for orators for more than a century, is worn to dirt by nightly gatherings that promote racial justice, plus a few other agendas. The smell of teargas sometimes lingers, mixed with the alluring aroma of spare ribs being cooked up to feed the crowd.

A few groups see Jensen and start chants disparaging all police, often in foul language. For example, they ask officers if they have stopped beating their wives.

“They are casting a line out to see if they can get something under our skin,” Jensen said. “I have heard some vile things. But it’s a game to them. They don’t see you as a person. They see you as the uniform. They take out their anger or frustration or hatred not on you personally but on the unform. You just let it roll off your back.”

Sometimes, Jensen feels good humored about it all, teasing his interlocutors with a laugh and something like: “Hey buddy, you think that is going to get to me? Can’t you do better than that?”

Meanwhile, Jensen has met many protesters he likes.

He explained that his faith and moral foundation have helped him keep a clear head. “It helps you know why you are doing what you are doing,” he explained. “It helps you stay on the right path. If you know you behaved in an ethical and moral way, you feel OK. You keep the greater and bigger ideas in mind.”

Born to policing

Jensen grew up in Clackamas County, the son of a Portland police officer. Young Jake graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1999, having appreciated the relatively small school and its close relationships with teachers.

“I felt people there were really invested in my success,” said Jensen.

His favorite instructor was Paul Wallulis, in the math department at the Southeast Portland high school since 1980. Jensen was so good at math that Wallulis signed him up for a class at Reed College.

After high school, Jensen considered marine biology and engineering. But his mind and heart always returned to policing. His family held public service in high regard. Law enforcement seemed like the family business. A next door neighbor was also a cop.

“I was exposed to that culture basically from birth,” Jensen said. “I enjoyed hearing the stories. It seemed like the kind of job where you could show up, do good and have fun.”

His father, Cliff, and the neighbor tried to talk Jake out of it, knowing the job can be grueling. “Dad knew firsthand you can get in fights and people will call you names,” Jensen said.

But the young man headed off to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, on a police scholarship. In return for money for school, he promised to join the force. In 2004, he was sworn in as a Portland patrolman. He has steadily been given more and more responsibility.

“What impresses me about Jake is that he is quietly competent,” said Ronald Turco, a former reserve homicide detective in Beaverton and also a member of St. Pius X. “He is unassuming and wears his religion in terms of service to the community. He is well read, thoughtful and always ready to help. No flamboyance. He’s the kind of officer you want to help you if you have a problem.”

Trusted in a crisis

At the end of May, Jensen’s superiors had a problem. He got an urgent phone call at 4 a.m. four days after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. A commander reported that a downtown protest had turned violent. Would Jensen take charge of operations?

He was in his uniform in minutes.

Jensen usually works from a command post away from the hubbub. “Having people yell at you and having rocks and bottles come flying in is not conducive to good decision making,” he said.

Jensen said his main task is making sure police response is proportional but achieves the goals of his commanders — protecting life and property.

“We don’t want to launch a bunch of teargas or launch nonlethal weapons on people merely standing in the street and blocking traffic,” Jensen said. Overreactions by police not only violate city code but are an affront to his Catholic faith, which holds up proportionality in its teaching on conflict.

As is typical with moderation, Portland police are getting fiery criticism from both sides. Some say they are too rough and some call them spineless.

Police overworked

Jensen has bigger worries than what detractors think. He estimates that 90% of Portland’s police officers have been assigned at one time or another to the protests and riots around the city.

Response times to other crimes have almost doubled because of the massive draw on police attention. To meet the goals of responsiveness downtown, Jensen needs 113 patrol officers at liberty. These days, he has only about 85.

Officers have been asked to shuffle vacations. Their family life is under even more pressure than usual.

While the protesters have decried the system of policing for harming and killing suspects, rioters have hurt dozens of officers with rocks, bottles and fireworks.

“It does take an emotional toll,” Jensen said.

He makes sure all officers know they can get counseling from the bureau’s employee assistance program.

“A lot of the people working here are top notch people,” Jensen said. “They really feel a calling to keep the city safe. They are not just getting a paycheck.”

He wants the public to know that the officers on the ground downtown or at other protest sites are just some of the police employees working on the situation. If there are 50 officers in riot gear arresting alleged violators, there are almost that many booking defendants and processing paperwork into the wee hours, the machinery of law enforcement in a democracy.

“People are definitely tired,” said Jensen.

Most protests peaceful

In the end, Jensen distinguishes between protesters and rioters. A majority of Portland protests have occurred without violence and arrests. But damaging businesses, assaulting others, attacking public property — that will spark a series of announcements over a loudspeaker audible for a mile or so. Some people do leave.

“They say to themselves, ‘I was here to express my opinion, not for this,’” Jensen explained.

Those who stay? He figures they are aiming to break the law.

Instead of rioting, he wishes those citizens would make their voices heard before elected officials.

edl@catholicsentinel.org