Portland, OR

How many police officers does Portland really need to be effective?

Rose Bak

Arguments for increasing or decreasing funding need to include consideration of the city's exponential growth.

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Photo courtesy of City of Portland

The debate over the Portland Police Bureau and its staffing levels is heating up as the police union, city council, advocates, and citizens grapple with the bureau's performance handling issues related to livability and public safety.

Over the summer of 2020, the city was overwhelmed by months of racial equity protests which were mostly peaceful but sometimes turned violent after peaceful protestors left the scene. In Portland, like many cities, seeing video after video of police officers tear-gassing or engaging in violent confrontations with protestors brought up calls to defund the police altogether.

In June 2020, the Portland City Council cut police bureau funding by $15 million for the 2020/21 budget year.

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Photo courtesy of City of Portland

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as Police Commissioner, approved an additional $9 million in cuts for the 2021/22 budget -- the largest budget cut in any city agency -- but then added back in $6.2 million in one-time funds aimed at "speeding up" the hiring process for new officers and increasing coordination between the police bureau and other city bureaus. The mayor wrote:

“I am proposing increased investments focused on improving coordination among public safety bureaus, funding unarmed public safety officers, community-focused safety programs, and stemming the gun violence that took more than 40 lives during 2020 – including 24 people of color.”

All told, the Police Bureau has lost nearly $30 million in funding over the last two years, according to KATU news.

Since then the city of Portland has been rocked by non-stop gun violence. According to the Police Bureau's reporting dashboard, there were 948 separate "shooting incidents" between January and September 2021. Across the city, residents are reporting being afraid to leave their homes.

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Illegal street racing bustPhoto courtesy of City of Portland

And it's not just violent crime that is worrying Portlanders. Car thefts have skyrocketed, street racing is taking over neighborhoods, and increasingly people report that their calls for police response go unanswered.

City Commissioners Carmen Rubio and Mingus Mapps now are asking the city to reverse its cut mentality and add capacity to the Police Bureau's budget during the fall "budget monitoring process", also known as the "Fall BMP". Commissioners traditionally use extra funds available at the Fall BMP to fund special projects or refill budget cuts from earlier forecasts.

Rubio has called on the Police Bureau to aggressively fill all the currently funded vacancies, noting that there is a large number of unfilled positions at the bureau due to staff turnover and police retirements.

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Photo courtesy of City of Portland

Mapps has also called into question what the appropriate size of our police force is based on our current population. Mapps pointed out:

“For a city our size, you’d expect us to have about 1200 police officers. As of today, we’re around that 700 number. As the commissioner in charge of 911, I can tell you we literally don’t have enough cop cars out there."

The question of police staffing is not an easy one to answer. Experts caution that it's not simply a matter of saying there should be a certain number of officers on staff based on population. Police staffing also needs to consider the number and types of police calls received, and community visibility of police. High levels of poverty and homelessness can also impact policing needs.

Other factors that can influence ideal police staffing include the availability of programs such as Portland Street Response, which decreases the need for police to go out on 911 calls involving people in a mental health crisis.

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Portland Street Response TeamPhoto courtesy of City of Portland

Earlier this month, the Portland Police union proposed doubling the bureau's staffing by hiring 840 officers over the next five years. The union's report noted that Portland's Police Bureau actually has fewer officers now than it did twenty years ago when the city had 170,000 fewer residents.

The union is not alone in this belief. In an October 17th guest column in the Oregonian, economist Robert McCullough asserted that the city's police force is "sized for a Portland of 50 years ago". The column compared police staffing, city population, and the number of square miles within the city and noted the correlated changes in crime statistics, calling for the Portland City Council to take a careful look at public safety.

Meanwhile, many residents are looking to the City Council to avoid reactive decisions about police staffing and instead take a careful look at what's best for the city in the long run.

#portland #oregon #police #staffing #budget #publicsafety

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR
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