By Midge Pierce

A spike in gun violence has added steam to Portland residents who talk of leaving the City and its problems behind.

New Police Chief Jami Resch gets it. With someone shot in the City every two days since the New Year, she seeks to stem lawlessness and restore trust in the institutions that serve and protect through improved training, public engagement and accountability. 

These measures were required under a Department of Justice (DOJ) settlement over police use of force.

The DOJ compliance announcement on January 24 followed the Mayor’s appointment of Resch, a 21-year, well-respected veteran of the force. She hit the ground running following the surprise resignation of Danielle Outlaw, a popular, but short-term chief with the distinction as Portland’s first female African American police chief. 

Even though Portland Police Bureau is now in “substantial compliance” with federal reforms, Resch intends to continue crisis intervention, de-escalation techniques and misconduct investigations implemented by the DOJ after the 2010 shooting of an unarmed, suicidal man. 

“Work is not done,” she said, adding there is no finish line to making the force more effective and committed to better relationships, especially with under-represented communities. 

Resch said that Portland Police Bureau (PPB) is committed to minimizing force, but that the public must be prepared for force when lives are in danger.

As a result of the DOJ lawsuit, a citizen panel was formed that has now evolved into the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP). 

At a late January meeting, the group unanimously voted to recommend police implement a Procedural Justice Statement to explain reasons for vehicle and pedestrian stops and searches. 

PCCEP member Lakayana Drury said the intent is to reduce racial inequities that disproportionately detain and arrest people of color.

The Justice Statement is also intended to give voice to community members living with mental illness. Every police stop is a risk to life and limb, according to PCCEP member Amy Anderson. 

She added that lawlessness could be reduced if people perceive they are treated fairly and justly. Members also discussed bodycams, under consideration by the Council as it weighs pros of video recordings against potential violations of civil rights.

PCCEP public testimony included Portland Copwatch member Dan Handelman’s description of the DOJ compliance as incomplete. He said that even though police checked all the right boxes, police interfaces still resulted in a surge in recent deaths.

Mental health crises are often trigger points, quite literally. At a Portland Community College (PCC) event last month, East Precinct Commander Tashia Hager and others emphasized the need for wraparound mental health services and compassionate, effective alternatives to police answering homeless complaints. 

She issued a reminder that just because a campsite is reported, it doesn’t mean police will respond if there is no imminent public danger. Hager said camping is intrinsically a social, not a law enforcement issue. 

“It is not against the law to be homeless,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler, adding that problems tend to occur among the chronically houseless, a group that has grown by roughly one third in recent years, despite progress in sheltering families, veterans and those actively seeking housing. 

Several speakers at the PCC event discussed a Portland Street Response pilot program to send mental health workers to handle 911 calls deemed non-violent. Commissioner JoAnne Hardesty’s office described the program as the right way to get the right first responder to the right incident at the right time. 

Later in the month, the City Council discussed the future of the Gun Violence Reduction team, transitioned from the former Gang Enforcement unit. No action was taken to increase funding or add programs.

During an interview, Resch said her predecessor left PPB in a good position to move forward. The public can help, she said, by advocating for additional resources, and promoting the good rather than the negative so PPS can recruit the next generation of officers.

Asked if in-roads were being made to add women to leadership roles (Portland’s fire chief is Sara Boone), she said females represent 16% of the Portland force – higher than the national average. 

“Seeing women in positions of authority, tells young girls considering joining law enforcement that of course you can.”