By Midge Pierce
Portland’s police force has hit a decidedly rough patch. The bureau has a hundred vacancies to fill, internal morale is low and public mistrust of police appears at an all-time high.
Last month’s Listening Session intended to encourage police transparency and answer questions about crowd control tactics devolved into hissing and shouting. The gap between the community and those wearing badges seemed impossibly wide.
The session was convened after the Mayor and several Commissioners characterized text exchanges between a police liaison and a right wing supremacist group as overly familiar.
The comments were followed by angry retorts from police unions that City Council jumped to conclusions without understanding the need for sanctioned outreach to gather intelligence from both sides during protests. Police Chief Danielle Outlaw says the full story can not be known until investigations are complete.
Despite high hopes for a force with its first black female chief, upticks in police shootings, Council’s decision to break ties rather than negotiate terms with an anti-terror task force, controversy over who should pay for school resource officers and whether they should be assigned to PPS at all, the ever-consuming homeless crises, followed by the mayor’s rush to judgment and anti-police sentiment taking hold, all have taken their toll.
As the public howls that police are too tough, too soft or too slow, police retirements are at record highs and staff shortages grow worse daily. Police current vacancies anticipate twenty-five more retirees by the end of this month. Training new hires before they hit the street is a time-consuming, months-long process and many trainees do not make it.
Since 2013, emergency calls to police have increased some 30%. Most of the rise is attributed to calls about vagrants.
Willamette Week reports that Oregon’s percentage of unsheltered people is second highest in the nation and that much of the City is “fed up and freaked out.” Calls split between residents concerned about the lack of mental health and addiction services vs. demands that officials wake up and “give as much consideration to safety and livability of tax paying citizens as to the homeless.”
Day to day, dealing with homelessness and the mentally ill may be the most consequential drain on rank and file. Police union president Daryl Turner, a frequent critic of City policies who dismisses accusations of police racial bias “knee-jerk”, blames the city for pressuring police to address homelessness without providing sufficient resources for work it was not tasked or trained to do.
Inside the force, officers grumble that the rift between those who wear the blues and those who sing them threatens the safety of all Portlanders. A comment at a neighborhood meeting summed up the difficulty of recruitment. “Why would anyone want to be a police officer? It’s a no win, thankless job.”
Violent crime is reportedly up 16% even though a faulty computer system has stymied the tracking of property crimes, car thefts and street harassment that seems to stalk businesses, residents and visitors alike.
Solutions may be forthcoming. Computer and 911 glitches are being addressed. To supplement thinning officer ranks, the City says it’s implementing a new spin on an old community policing idea by hiring and mobilizing a dozen public safety support “specialists” – PS3s – rather than sworn officers who take months to train.
As the plan materializes, Portlanders still face the confusing task of how to report non-emergency safety issues.
Resources to Keep Handy
When crime comes calling, most people call 911. Unless a life is threatened, 911 is usually not the best number to call according to City County Information Referral Supervisor John Dutt.
Acknowledging a confusing array of options residents confront when facing crime and safety issues, he offers three top numbers to call to expedite response times and avoid system reporting overloads:
Non-emergency police 503.823.3333 City and County Information & Referral 503.823.4000 Mental health crisis line 503.988.4888
Other resources to expedite responses: Online livability reports such as vandalism, auto theft and other safety issues: pdxreporter.org/#NewReport
One Point of Contact Campsite reporting: portlandoregon.gov/campsite Homeless Toolkit bit.ly/2Ixq5pD