By Karen Hery and Jim O’Rourke

It’s no secret that Portland’s population is growing.  Unfortunately, the growth of Portland’s police force has not been keeping up.

A hiring freeze in response to funding cuts in 2010 and 2012 pinched an already overtaxed force.  Efforts since then to recruit, hire and retain officers have not met goals. A report of police staffing released last July showed only 880 of the authorized 949 sworn officer positions filled.

Hiring rates, retirements and officers leaving for smaller Oregon cities have all affected the size of the police force here.

The average number of sworn officers per 1,000 residents in large US cities is around 2.3.  Portland’s average of 1.5 is lower than both Seattle and San Francisco.

In a report given to the city council last summer, the Portland Police Bureau projected the need to hire about 75 sworn officers per year over the next five fiscal years just to maintain current staffing number as 300-400 officers are eligible for retirement during that time.

The average number of annual hires for fiscal years 2011 – 2016 was 25.  The state police academy which new officers must attend, has limited room each year for training. Police Public Information Officer, Pete Simpson, sees 60 new officers a year as an ambitious goal.

While the current command staff and city council debate what more can be done to close the gap between needed and available officers, many inside and outside the police force are getting creative and seeking alternative resources to address crime and chronic vagrancy.

Police officers like Shaun Sahli, recently promoted to the Central Precinct Neighborhood Response Team, are at the center of Portland’s creative policing.

Officer Sahli spent his last few years on the force assigned to an innovative outreach car.  Sahli and his partner, Ryan Engweiler, provide outreach contact with some of Portland’s most physically, financially and mentally challenged citizens and attend weekly meetings with a 10-12 person inter-disciplinary team with representatives for mental health and housing planning.

Their efforts to find efficient, effective, coordinated approaches to address homeless camping have caught the attention of other precincts and Multnomah County.

On a recent rainy morning, Sahli and Engweiler were in the first step of a progressive sweep process for an area of sidewalk camping.  Campers were notified and notices were posted to give squatters in the area five days to clear out before a jail work crew came by to remove trash and left behind belongings.

The sweeps are call-based. The encampments that receive the most complaint calls into the city on the non-emergency number or through PDX Reporter are the areas that get addressed.

A camper at Laurelhurst Park, who declined to be named, called the officers “diplomatic and fair to work with.”

“No one gets arrested for homelessness,” explained Engweiler. “If we don’t receive any complaint calls, they won’t be seeing us.”

In his Neighborhood Response Team role, Sahli patrols three days a week without having to answer 911 calls. His role is to address challenging issues that on-call officers and detectives assigned to particular cases are too busy to be able to follow through on.

Sometimes in plain clothes and sometimes in uniform, he tackles residential and business district issues with problem houses and buildings that are disruptive or plagued by petty crimes. Drug houses and a situation he refers to as “zombie” houses  (absent owners with squatters) are the mainstay of his work.

The non-emergency number staff knows to send information gathered about livability issues west of Caesar Chavez to him and east of Caesar Chavez to his counterpart, Officer Ryan Mele.

Supplementing what the police are able to offer can be costly, but doing nothing as issues grow year-by-year can be even more costly for businesses.

The Hawthorne Business District has been more and more affected each passing year by Portland’s gradual decline in numbers of officers able to respond to non-emergency issues that deter customers and frustrate shopkeepers.

Thanks to the financial support of nearly 50 businesses and 10 property owners, a walking security patrol is starting this month on Hawthorne from 30th to 49th streets. Hours and coverage area of the patrols are based on the amount contributed by the businesses. Those already contributing encourage more property owners and businesses to pitch in to extend the patrol’s hours and reach.

Police officer Ryan Engweiler and his partner Shaun Sahli

Both Hawthorne Business Association and Belmont Business Association have made extra efforts to share information with their business members about best practices for video surveillance systems and how to apply shatterproof glass treatments in response to a rash of opportunistic late night smash-and-grab theft occurring over the last few months.

In a crime prevention meeting organized by Belmont Business Association, Officer Jacob Walters shared ways to work smart with our time-challenged police force.

Walters explained that less than 10% of police reports get assigned to a detective. Video clearly documenting a crime is often the deciding factor for a report chosen for investigation and is a key factor in a successful prosecution.

Even more key is quick action to help keep evidence and paperwork together. Video that takes weeks to get to the precinct is more easily lost in the shuffle. Knowing how your video system works, handing an officer every item of evidence at the same time or at least the same day the report is taken increases the odds of theft prosecution and item recovery.

Having the most vulnerable items such as bikes and electronics registered and uniquely identifiable also helps.

Pete Simpson, Police Public Information Officer, is proud of how well Command staff, the Police Union and the City Council have worked together to identify the urgency of our city’s police staffing shortage.  He cites the union contract that went into effect January 1, as an important step in the right direction to attract and retain officers.

With a fuller police staffing still a couple of years away, it is clear that it is in the community’s best interest to take steps to both supplement and support our existing force.