By Midge Pierce
Finding balance between compassion for the homeless and diffusing neighborhood tensions is a dilemma for police caught between charges of excessive force on one hand and increasing calls for more police action on the other. The only certainty is the homeless crisis police encounter daily. It could get worse. Despite the mayor’s budget bump to beef up the department, some 200 more retirements are anticipated in the next few years.
Facing anxious residents packed in an East Precinct Community Room, Sgt. Randy Teig delivered sobering messages recently about a Portland split by the tragedy of houselessness and frustration of those impacted by tents, tarps, trash and trepidation. He lamented how little control police have over the issue. Problematic camps cleaned up in one quadrant, pop up in another, recently in areas that include Milwaukee and Oregon City.
An ongoing vexation is the difference in policies between city-owned and ODOT property. Current City policy allows clean-up of homeless camps after seven days of posted warnings while ODOT problems can languish for months.
Between federal mandates designed to de-escalate situations and the protected status of the houseless, police roles are limited, Teig said. “The system is deliberately slow, cumbersome and inefficient. It’s designed so we can’t intrude too much on each person’s civil rights.”
Teig described how his East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team, once ten strong, is now down to four officers covering 33 square miles between Cesar Chavez and the Gresham border. The area has numerous illegal camps, carts, baggage and bikes of questionable lineage that become intolerable to neighbors who fear for their safety.
As the crowd shared tales of intimidation on sidewalks, poop in yards, needles in parks and harassment on their doorsteps, Teig cautioned residents to avoid direct confrontations. Despite notoriously slow response times; he urged use of the City’s One Point of Contact at www.portlandoregon.gov/campsites. Other options include emailing email@example.com or the app PDXreporter.org. Reserve 911 for life threatening and “happening now” situations only. He emphasized the importance of filing follow-up complaints even for non-emergencies so that police can establish crime patterns. “We prioritize based on the number of reports we get on a situation.”
To manage expectations, he warned witnesses to illegal drug-use, “We don’t have time to seize drugs.” Abusers have been de-prioritized in favor of finding dealers. “If you see someone using, that is a misdemeanor that will be reduced to a violation,” he said, adding that evidence to convict distributors is what police need.
Teig is hopeful response times will improve and priorities can shift as staff increases at One Point of Contact and the administration’s coordinated approach to protect public rights by prohibiting erected structures on streets, sidewalks and public parking strips.
A program that is working is the reduction of occupied vehicles from an estimated 680 to 65. And boarding up Zombie houses significantly reduces crime within 500 feet of distressed property. East Precinct data indicates reported burglaries drop some 42%, vandalism 45%, stolen vehicles 29% and vice 50%.
Managing some 400 empty houses in the precinct remains challenging. It can take six officers hours to search a house, board it up and post signage. A grateful Montavilla resident expressed gratitude that police attention was making his neighborhood more livable. Since the area continues to have a Zombie house problem, Teig urged residents to be vigilant and report vacant houses via the hotline 503.823.4800.
When asked the impact of homeless shelters on crime, he suggested it depended on how well a facility is managed. Typically problems do not arise from those sheltered and obeying the rules, he said, but from outsiders. For police, it underlines the importance of sorting out the truly needy from those with ill intent.
His presentation was part of East Portland Involved Citizens bi-monthly meetings.