By Midge Pierce

Hawthorne merchants are taking a proactive approach to Portland’s thinning blue line.

In an effort to keep the shopping district vibrant, the Hawthorne Business Alliance is considering hiring private security to supplement a shortage in Portland’s police patrols.

Hawthorne has thrived in recent years, in part, because crime has been checked by highly-effective police foot patrols. Now, with foot patrols so over-extended that they can only spend a few hours on the street, merchants are seeking alternative ways to deter vandalism and disperse unruly gatherings of street people.

Businesses hope to avoid a déja vu of the crippled commerce during the bad old days 20 years ago of drugs and serious crime.

At a recent safety forum at Western Seminary, Hawthorne Business Alliance members warned that shops, restaurants and businesses will be hurt if customers perceive that Hawthorne is unsafe. “We don’t want to lose customers,” said a 20-year business owner.

“Police can’t be here all the time,” said meeting coordinator Bruce Chaser, owner of the Hawthorne Wellness building. “They don’t have the staff or the budget.”

Speakers responded that immediate steps such as vigilance and diligent maintenance can help offset police shortages.

Hiring private security is a reasonable option according to City Crime Prevention Coordinator Teri Poppino. “A regular, high profile presence shows that the area is not a no-man’s land but an active, well-taken care of street. It keeps order and discourages crime.”

Poppino recommended partnering with other commercial corridors such as Belmont and Division to minimize the per business cost of the service. In addition, she encouraged establishing neighborhood Business Watch groups to identify and help stop trouble.

G4S Secure Solutions Operations Manager Randy Finley explained that private security services can supplement police by providing staff trained to be proactive and respectful in their interactions with people on the street. “It shows somebody is here, somebody is watching.”

Despite reports of vandalism, loitering and graffiti, most of what transpires on Hawthorne is not criminal.

Officer Jon Richardson described a mix of street people that includes the truly-needy, the mentally-disturbed and a phenomenon he termed  “travelers” – teens in town for the summer who “think it’s cool to look homeless”.

They get by with “spanging”; panhandling for spare change. “They’re out there because people give them money.”

Giving out vouchers for organizations such as Sisters of the Road is a preferable response, according to forum speakers.

“Don’t give money to panhandlers,” Richardson said. “Real change is better than spare change.”

The major goal of foot patrols, according to Richardson, is to get people connected to the services they need. A lot of travelers are not interested in work or services. “Our deal with the traveler kids is to leave them alone if no more than four gather at a time and they are not trashing the area.”

Open carrying of alcohol, unlike littering, is not a bookable offense. By the time police fill out hours of citations, offenders have often been released and are back on the street.

“Nothing comes of the piece of paper citing open containers,” said Richardson. “Violations don’t even get processed before violators are out the back door.”

For non-emergency problems related to drugs or alcohol, he advised calling the mobile CHIERS van (Inebreiate Emergency Response Service) staffed by EMTs trained to work with alcohol, substance abusers and the mentally ill.

Rather than bringing offenders to jail, the vans deliver them to the Sobering Program where recovery can happen in a safer, appropriate environment. Response time can be quicker than calling police.

A major frustration on the street is a yo-yo effect. For instance, when officers from below SE Cesar E. Chavez push loiterers and troublemakers out, they often migrate to the East Precinct above Chavez and beyond.

“It’s not a good band-aid,” admitted Richardson. “The problems don’t go away. They just move down the road.”

The solution, he says is to “be the eyes for each other”. Richardson urged business watchdogs to keep notebooks and document problems. It’s legal, he said, to post on social media pictures of people in public places.

Another frustration for businesses is a months’ long backlog in applications for a revamped Trespass Enforcement Agreement that allows officers to arrest trespassers on private property when designated responsible parties are not on-site.

Merchants were dismayed to hear that those who had an agreement on file in the past, need to re-apply in order for the agreements to be legally binding.

Cassidy boutique owner Sarah Balzer asked if SE Portland could be designated a high pedestrian zone so police have the legal authority to tell panhandlers and loiterers to move on.

Poppino said working collectively through the Hawthorne board packs some clout. If the board is frustrated by policies, the paucity of police and processing backlogs, they should pressure the mayor’s office for change.

Board President Greg Moon said the Alliance will evaluate and make decisions based on the concerns surfaced at the forum.