PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden urged the City Council to fully fund the Portland Street Response program Thursday, May 6.
Wyden tweeted that he had met with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who favors full funding, and said he supports federal funding for such non-police crisis response teams nationally.
Portland’s program pairs Portland Police & Fire paramedics with mental health professionals to respond to 911 calls that do not require a police response. The program started as a pilot in Lents in February. Mayor Ted Wheeler has proposed spending nearly $1 million in next year’s budget to fully fund the pilot. Hardesty wants to spend at least $3 million more to expand the program citywide.
In his tweet, Wyden said, “Met recently with @PDXStResponse & @JoAnnPDX about better responding to crisis situations. I’m fighting for federal funding to expand these programs nationally. I hope the City of Portland demonstrates the value of this critical program by fully funding it in its next budget.”
Wyden sent the tweet the day after the council held an online public hearing on Wheeler’s proposed $5.7 billion budget. It is scheduled to be approved on May 13, finalized on June 17, and take effect on July 1.
Wednesday budget hearing
The proposed budget includes money for small businesses, homelessness, community safety, economic recovery and more. It would reduce funding for the Portland Police Bureau by $3 million while the budgets of virtually all other bureaus would increase.
More than 150 people signed up to testify. Among the topics brought up were $5.7 million for graffiti removal, funding for a food cart relocation and a program to provide clean-up jobs for those who are homeless.
But the majority who spoke talked about funding for the Portland Police Bureau. Most — but not all — were frustrated about the money going to bureau, despite the proposed cut. Dozens expressed their desire to fully fund the newly formed Portland Street Response unit, a non-police response team for people in crisis.
A sampling of those opposed:
“I am here to demand that the City Council defund $35 million from the police and redirect it into the community,” said Jasmine Casanova-Dean with Unite Oregon.
“We do not need funding going towards the police who at their core murder, harm, and traumatize members of their communities they are not even part of,” said Rebecca Saunders.
“Most people that are criminalized have experienced lifetimes of trauma that need to be addressed and that should be acknowledged when you are interacting with them. Only a program like Street Response is going to be able to train people to do that. I know Portland Street Response and Park Rangers might not be able to, but if you fund them they will be able to,” said Sean Jacobson, who spoke as a representative for both Vanport Initiative and Sunrise PDX.
“I’m not overstating when I say the whole nation is watching. If you vote to stunt this program’s ambition, there will be a spotlight on that timidity,” said Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots
One woman spoke in favor of funding for the police, however. Leslie Smith said she’s lived in Northeast Portland for 32 years and told the city commissioners about the drive-by shooting she and her husband recently witnessed.
“I just really want you to understand that if my husband and I had been 20 seconds later we may have been injured or killed,” she said. “Gun shots are becoming a common occurrence.”
Smith noted the police bureau is “so completely understaffed right now that they can’t responded to anything but the most immediately dangerous crimes.”
And she dismissed the idea of non-police dealing with serious incidents.
“The notion that a counselor or a park ranger will be present on our street from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and will be capable of dealing with these violent events is just too ridiculous for words,” she said.
In remarks near the end of the meeting, Mayor Ted Wheeler shared his thoughts and responded to some of the pointed comments made during the meeting.
“I want to be very clear — I am a strong proponent of the Portland Street Response. I have been since the very beginning,” the mayor said. He noted that the City Council fully funded the pilot program and he’s open to discussions about where to take that funding now.
“Just by virtue of the fact that it’s not funded in the proposed budget does not mean that’s where the council’s going to land,” he said. “So I want to hear from colleagues what their thinking is on that and what their intentions are.”
The mayor also addressed the time necessary to make the kind of systemic changes talked about.
“We heard a number of people say they don’t trust me or they don’t like me or they want me to resign or we haven’t moved quickly enough on the issue of reform,” Wheeler said. “I want to tell you this council is very committed. We want our police bureau to be the most effective, responsive and accountable police bureau in the United States, and to do that it takes resources, it takes time and, yes, it requires evolution of the way the police bureau does its work. And I support that, along with my colleagues, and this budget reflects that as well.”
He also said he heard “loudly and clearly” from those who said the city should “invest in people, invest in community. And I hope at the end of the day that’s what all of our budgets do, that we prioritize people, that we prioritize community.”
The Portland City Council is expected to vote to approve some form of the budget on May 13.
KOIN 6 News is a news partner of the Portland Tribune and contributed to this story.