By Midge Pierce

A perfect storm of conditions: an unprecedented police shortage, anti-police sentiment and diminishing crime prevention activity may threaten Portland’s safety. This summer’s contract negotiations could add to the turmoil.  

While actual crime reports are down, perceptions of a rising crime wave are reality. Officers say statistics reflect deceptively low data input. A major reason is under-reporting of incidents by a distrustful public and the dearth of overworked officers who are slow to respond to low level crimes. 

Police struggle to rapidly answer emergency and radio calls. Non-threatening incidents and thefts get short-shrift, taking hours or days to address. Police have little time left for follow-up investigations, paperwork and data crunching. When arrests are made, those caught are often back on streets the same day.  

In turn, police get labeled ineffective or worse. Language barriers and fear contribute to under-reporting. Less confidence in the Bureau means fewer crime reports and less police action. The cycle repeats. 

Amid the maelstrom, morale tanks and recruitment has been an ongoing challenge. The force currently has 105 positions to fill and faces a hundred more retirements over the next few years. 

“Portland is the last place in the country that people want to come work,” East Precinct Commander Tashia Hager told the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association (MTNA). 

Her area covers 36 square miles with 225,000 people. Her force is down roughly a third. She faces the daily choice of deploying officers to “the work that has the most impact” – life threatening crime with weapons. 

Despite long response waits, Hager and her lieutenants urged the public to report crime so that staffing and funding resources can be properly allocated. To stop crime, they said, police need to know about it. 

Sharing stories about positive police interactions is another way Portland residents can help turn the tide of negativity that makes recruitment so hard.

PSAC Takes Action

At a downtown Public Action Coalition Meeting (PSAC) last month, newly appointed Assistant Police Chief Michael Frome urged patience in the face of police shortages and changing department interfaces with other city bureaus. “We really are here to help,” he said. 

PSAC members contend that, as crime concerns grow, prevention seems to slow. They cast much of the blame on the Office of Community and Civic Life’s (OCCL) abandonment of crime prevention programs like Neighborhood Watch. 

OCCL has replaced traditional Watch programs with Neighbors Together, emphasizing community organizing and events rather than crime watches and foot patrols. 

Neighborhood Watch coordinator Kim Silverman credits Watch with reducing crime in her apartment by nearly 30 percent. Without the program, she feels less safe. “We’ve been orphaned. Crime prevention is twisting in the wind.” She says OCCL told her the program was nixed after a survey indicated concerns about racial profiling. 

Former safety manager Mark Wells charged “Current (OCCL) leadership does not support police and public safety.” He said OCCL staff is decimated, unfilled positions are unposted and case management interfaces with police are evaporating. 

OCCL, when questioned, referenced website descriptions of its revamped Community Safety Program that promotes safer communities through training and practices that provide connected, inclusive engagement of all Portlanders. A staffer said that despite reports to the contrary, noise abatement and graffiti removal continue under separate programs.

When PSAC members raised the possibility of transferring a $1.4 million crime prevention package from OCCL to PPB, Assistant Chief Michael Frome said it was a tough sell given all the challenges police face. Instead, he reiterated, the way to stop the circle of crime and criticism is to give police more positive support.

Restoring the balance between residents who seek stronger safety measures with those who criticize police is the unenviable task of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s Senior Safety Advisor Robert King. He said the public must let the Mayor know if crime prevention is a priority. 

Public confidence in police lowers crime, said Steve Trujillo, but it doesn’t come easy. He sits on a citizen’s committee that is part of a Justice Department settlement over police use of force. The committee majority “pulls toward extremists,” he says, and are biased against police. 

Adviser King said diverse citizens should work together toward equity and trust-building and he called on Portland to thank police for their service.

East Precinct Commander Hager, a Portland native who grew up in SE, understands the value of reaching out to those she serves and protects. 

At the January MTNA meeting, she promised her officers would attend more Neighborhood Association meetings. An Eastside multi-neighborhood group akin to PSAC might be a good way for residents and officers to stay connected, she said, providing it steered clear of political agendas. 

PSAC goals include promoting law enforcement, justice for victims and supporting wrap around services to stem the drug epidemic.

Hager knows that good police public relations matter. Despite insufficient staff and charges of excessive use of force, she said police are best equipped to handle dicey situations. 

“I would rather call an officer with experience, than an outsourced worker with none.” 

The Future: Cloudy or Bright? 

As the City readies for June contract negotiations with the Portland Police Bureau, sides are already squaring off. 

Reform activists backed by 27 organizations are demanding greater civilian oversight that holds officers accountable. 

In an Oregonian op-ed, two Justice and Peace leaders claimed that officers use excessive force and escape discipline for their actions. 

The Portland Police Association (PPA), a union that represents the rank and file, claim police do an “outstanding” job, despite staff shortages and recent population growth of more than 20 percent. 

PPA President Daryl Turner says he shares the fears, anxiety and frustrations of a disillusioned public. In a press release, he writes that the boots on the ground are the foundation of public safety and deserve respect as they drive toward building relationships and community trust.