PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The number of Portland Police Bureau sworn members is the fewest it’s been since 1989.
There are currently 788 sworn members combating record shootings and murders, confronting anarchists breaking windows and property, dealing with far left and far right groups squaring off in the city, crime in homeless camps and a rash of stolen cars.
Portland, which once proudly called itself “The City that Works,” is struggling to keep up with crime.
Police staffing numbers in Portland have dwindled since the movement to defund police in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Now, as the union is calling on city officials to double the police force, Mayor Ted Wheeler and city councilors are left to decide what to do to ensure the city “works” for everyone again.
As of Nov. 8, Portland police had recorded 77 homicides so far in 2021. That’s the highest number ever recorded in the city.
Police also say there have been 1,105 shootings as of Nov. 8 and they’re having a difficult time keeping up with smaller, more common crimes, like a theft Joel Morales reported.
Morales lives near a homeless camp off Interstate 5 in North Portland. He’s looking for his $3,500 electric bicycle that was stolen.
“I still can’t get Portland PD to help me out with this because they’re under-resourced,” he said. Morales said some of the homeless people living near his home told him that a person in the camp stole his bike.
While Portland’s population has continued to grow over the years, its number of sworn members has been – for the most part – declining since 2006.
In 1960, Portland had 654 police officers, when the city had 372,000 people. That’s about 300,000 fewer residents than the city has in 2021.
Over the last 60 years, as the population grew, so did the number of police officers. In 2001, the bureau staff peaked at 1,054 officers, according to data from the FBI. This data varies slightly from information published from the Portland Police Bureau, which said they had 1,049 officers in 2001.
After that, the population continued to climb, but the number of officers started to go down due to retirements and difficulty recruiting. Add in the budget cuts to the bureau in 2020, the chaos of violent protests, police leaving the bureau for other jobs – and the number took a dramatic dive.
As of Nov. 8, Portland was down to 788 officers. That number breaks down to 531 officers. Of those 531 officers, 57 are in training and 343 are assigned to patrol and respond to 911 calls. There are 131 officers who are assigned to investigative follow-up, child abuse, domestic violence, the training division, personnel, behavioral health, narcotics and more. PPB said they also currently have 18 officers on leave of service for various reasons.
The last time the city had fewer than 788 sworn members was in 1989 with 742. Portland’s population at the time was 65% of what it is now.
KOIN 6 News spoke to other people who live near the homeless camp Morales has been complaining about.
“This is anarchy,” Laurie Sugahbeare said. “The city has decided what rules they will and will not impose.
“I carry a Smith and Wesson baton that extends outward for a good, quick swing,” said Dale Hardt. “Now the city, Jo Ann Hardesty, has asked us to step up and enforce the laws ourselves. And I’m here, Jo Ann. I’m ready to defend the laws.”
Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty has advocated strongly for limiting the number of armed officers in the city.
“The police have a role, but their role is simply to solve crime. Their role is not to prevent crime, their role is not to intervene in other community activities. A response to gun violence should not be a knee-jerk reaction. As you know, we intentionally cut very specific programs in PPB’s budget during the last budget process because those programs had racially disparate outcomes,” she said in May.
She’s been the loudest voice on the commission for cutting the police force. She favors moving money to social services to prevent crime and funding non-police crisis workers to diffuse situations before they become violent.
She’s also denied that many of the shootings in the city are committed by gangs.
However, in late October, she told KOIN 6 News she reached out to Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell about creating a rehire plan.
“I’m open. I think if we’re going to rehire former officers, we need to have some criteria,” she said. “[To ensure] that we don’t bring back officers who’ve, who were part of the 6,000 use-of-force complaints from last year, that we don’t bring back officers who retired in lieu of being investigated.”
She said she thinks the city needs to work on “transforming a very dysfunctional bureau” and said she knows that’s going to take a while.
“We didn’t create a dysfunctional bureau overnight and it’s not going to be fixed overnight,” she said.
KOIN 6 News looked at how Portland Police Bureau’s 788 sworn-member force compares to similarly sized cities.
According to data collected from police departments in October, Washington D.C. has 3,578 officers, which is five officers per 1,000 people.
Boston has 2,098 officers, which is three officers per 1,000 people.
Milwaukee has 1,663 officers. The ratio is 2.8 officers per 1,000 people.
In El Paso, the police department has 1,138 officers or 1.7 officers per 1,000 people.
Seattle, which as of Nov. 2 had 40 homicides in 2021, has 1,124 officers, or 1.45 officers per 1,000 people. The city experienced its own exodus of officers in the past year.
Portland’s 788 police officers mean the Rose City has 1.2 officers per 1,000 people.
The national average in 2020 was 2.4 officers per 1,000 people.
“The reality is, our police department has been withering on the vine for several years,” Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps said.
Mapps hopes to incentivize 40 officers who are currently thinking about retiring to stay.
“If we continue at this rate, a year from now, we could be down to 600 officers. I have no idea how the city of Portland functions with a police bureau that small,” he said.
KOIN 6 News obtained exit interviews from Portland officers who quit the force in 2021. Several point to Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt as a reason.
One wrote, “There is little accountability for criminal behavior from the DA’s office.”
Another wrote, “As long as the other branches of the criminal justice system (district attorney and jail) refuse to hold up their obligations, police officers will continue to be ineffective at making any lasting change.”
A third said she’d be enticed to stay with PPB if there was “a DA who prosecutes crimes and prosecutes without bias.”
In an interview with Schmidt on Oct. 13, he said, “I think we have to have that conversation of what is the right tool for the job. And, you know, maybe sometimes that’s not a police officer.”
Schmidt said he won’t suggest to the city council or the police bureau how many officers the city needs. He said there should be alternatives when dealing with people experiencing mental crises and addiction, rather than just sending police officers.
“I think they’re in a really tough spot. You know, I think it’s a challenging moment, because I don’t control the police. They don’t work for me. I don’t have any kind of oversight into them. My job is to look at the law and apply it to conduct. And so that’s what I do in every single case, whether that’s a police officer who potentially has broken a law or whether that’s a person, and that’s the standard that I have to hold myself to,” he said.
In recent polling by the group People for Portland, 66% said Portland needs more officers, 17% said the city has the right amount and 8% said there should be fewer.
Imani Muhammad, who founded the non-profit Y.O.U.th and works with kids, is trying to break the cycle of violence. She said police aren’t the long-term answer, they’re just a Bandaid.
“City officials, everybody, where you have to reallocate your funds in a way that may have not looked like it’s looked in 50 years. You have to consider, we may have to do something that’s different. We may have to fund the smaller nonprofit we’ve never even heard of because they have the recipe or the formula to make the change,” she said.
But the Portland police union argues more officers will be essential and that the size of the force should be doubled in the next five years, adding 840 more officers to deal with crime in the city.
Residents say the “City that Works” is far from working like it used to.
“I just make do what I do and I just kind of laugh about it now,” Morales said. “What am I going to cry about it, you know? So, just laugh about it.”
Besides losing officers, the police chief has had trouble finding officers willing to join the new Focused Intervention Team, which is the replacement for the Gun Violence Reduction Team, which replaced the Gang Enforcement Team over concerns they unfairly targeted minorities. The chief told city and county leaders in October he hoped to have the team up and running in November.
On Wednesday, Mayor Ted Wheeler made an announcement saying he’d like to add 300 members to the Portland Police Bureau in the next three years. Of those members, 200 would be armed police officers and the remaining 100 would be unarmed public safety support specialists.
He also said he would propose the city offer $25,000 signing bonuses to the first 50 officers or public safety support specialists who are qualified. He also wants to add longevity bonuses to improve retention within PPB.