By Don MacGillivray
No one ever dreamed that peace loving, but weird, Portland, OR would become a center of attention for nightly rioting and citizen demands for law and order reform. Large peaceful demonstrations have morphed into conflict and contention between various extremists and the police over the past 100+ days.
Nothing like this has happened here since the 1960s and the public is concerned about the violence and systemic racism expressed by both demonstrators and police during these protests.
Recently, homelessness was listed as Portland’s most important problem among 34 percent of those interviewed in an October telephone survey carried out for Oregon Public Broadcasting by DHM Research.
Racial issues were second with 20 percent and affordable housing was third with 10 percent. Four law enforcement issues received a combined total of 28 percent. All other issues scored of less than 5 percent.
A city program titled “Rethink Portland” conducted a series of online public meetings this October to discuss public safety and the future role of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
This is an effort to engage the community to reimagine community safety. Many of our ethnic citizens are demanding major changes.
The Portland City Council’s Fall Budget Monitoring Process took place October 29 and more reductions to the PPB budget are anticipated. Many believe the police are either too aggressive or not aggressive enough. When they use tear gas and projectiles to disperse angry troublemakers they also injure some of the law-abiding demonstrators.
Reducing or eliminating police budgets is getting a lot of play, both locally and nationally. In part, this is due to the unpopularity of the police given the lack of accountability of recent killings in many cities throughout the US.
PPB’s budget was reduced by $15 million this spring, but this hasn’t satisfied anyone. The police say they must increase their budgets to invest in more officers, training and reforms while their critics want the police to end the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests of the press and the lack of officer identification. Detractors want greater transparency, respect for the peaceful demonstrators and police oversight.
Others say the police are being asked to address issues not within the scope of their duties. Different ways to address community safety are available, but the funding is not.
The money saved from PPB reductions could be used to address many societal issues that are the root causes of problematic behaviors and criminal activities.
Unfortunately, employment, housing, healthcare, education and social service issues are much more challenging and cannot be addressed by downsizing the funding of the police.
The community safety needs of Portland are now much greater and more complex than previously and reforms are long overdue. For many years, Portland Neighborhood Associations along with Crime Prevention Programs were vehicles to address some of these concerns, but they were controversial and their potential was never fully realized.
In June, Mayor Wheeler issued his 19 Point Police Action Plan, due to the recent demands for racial justice and police accountability. Portland‘s Street Response Team (SRT) is one of these points.
Another is the community-led review of Rethink Portland chaired by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. Many of the 19 Points were strategies that will address concerns of the black and brown communities.
Making the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing a permanent community oversight body along with support for the Oregon Legislative People of Color Caucus are included, too.
For over a year, the city has been developing a non-emergency homeless response program, the Portland Street Response Team, to address problems around the issues of police outreach.
In recent years, homeless people have accounted for over 50 percent of police arrests. Many of the calls involving the homeless do not require police and the treatment of the homeless by police is a common complaint.
An extensive survey was carried out a year ago to determine what could be done to improve outreach to the homeless population. The results suggested that people often want help with non-police issues while being treated with politeness and respect.
A demonstration program was carried out in the Lents Fire Management Area. The SRT was added as the third response option to the 911 emergency phone system and they have responded to 25 percent of emergency calls, reducing the load on police and fire resources. The final SRT report on the pilot project was very positive so it is planned to be expanded early next year.
For more on criminal justice reform, see: “Community Conversation on Portland Police Association Contract,” Portland Bureau of Human Resources 2019; “Call for Police Reforms,” Council on American-Islamic Relations, Oregon 2019; and “Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” President Barack Obama 2015.