PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — In an unprecedented situation for Portland, a racially diverse and experienced group of police officers is taking pay cuts to get away from the city, while citing poor working conditions here.
And the city’s police recruiter tasked with boosting bureau diversity isn’t looking for replacements — because that person is gone, too.
Chief Chuck Lovell recently announced that the Portland Police Bureau would be moving the vast majority of traffic cops and all its K-9 officers to respond to 911 calls. The goal: to deal with a wave of retirements and resignations and combat historically low response times this past year.
What Lovell didn’t say is that for the first time that anyone can remember, the number of people resigning has outstripped retirements.
While 14 officers have filed papers to retire by the end of January, nine officers have resigned since November, and seven more have filed to resign shortly.
And the number of imminent resignations may be far more. Based on requests from police departments seeking particular officers’ personnel records, “we have around 25 people that may be in the process of trying to get hired in other places,” said Assistant Chief Michael Frome, who oversees the bureau’s Human Resources Department.
“This is unprecedented,” he said. “We really have not seen this many people leaving at this stage in their career.”
Police officers often leave smaller departments to go to places like Portland for higher pay. In this case they are leaving Portland for places like Beaverton, Bend, Hillsboro, Tigard and Boise, Idaho — where they will receive less pay.
In Boise, for instance, Chief Ryan Lee — a former assistant chief in Portland — has hired four Portland officers away from his old bureau so far. They’ll lose not only pay, but service time towards their eventual retirement.
“Salaries in Boise are lower than salaries in Portland and the officers coming to Boise will be taking a cut in pay,” Boise Police Department spokesman Haley Williams said in an email.
One long-time cop told the Portland Tribune, “Good people are leaving. Really good cops. And a lot of them have very racially diverse backgrounds.”
Frome, for his part, said he doesn’t have numbers, but did say the confirmed departures constitute a racially diverse group with at least one multi-lingual officer, and he’d hire them all back if he could.
The bureau spends a great deal of money on each officer — roughly 18 months of salary, plus support from the training division and the trainee’s supervising officer — before they are ready to assume their duties.
For each resignation of a fully trained officer who’s passed their probation, another city will benefit from Portland’s investment.
Frome called the new dynamic “terrible” for the city.
Complicating things is that the bureau has no plans to hire new officers anytime soon — so much so that it’s done away with the recruiter position that spearheads efforts to diversify the force and attract quality candidates.
In part, that’s a result of how the bureau has shifted resources to cope with the Black Lives Matter protests that broke out in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In the past, the bureau often struggled to hire in a timely way to get the better-quality recruits. To help with that the bureau maintains vacancies to hire into, while trying to hire year-round. It takes 18 months to fully train new officers so they can take calls on their own, so the bureau tries to maintain a steady pipeline.
That approach, combined with a very generous contract signed by outgoing Mayor Charlie Hales, has allowed the bureau to hire a relatively diverse and gender-balanced group of officers in recent years.
But the bureau quietly put its hiring on pause July 1, after taking a cut of more than $15 million from the City Council.
The cut eliminated vacancies that the bureau had been using to fund its other operations, including overtime pay to respond to protests and rioting.
The bureau, however, has continued to spend money on those things, meaning it’s made cuts elsewhere to pay for them.
“When the cuts came in and we basically lost our vacancies, that put us in a bigger fiscal hole than we were anticipating being in,” Frome said. “We didn’t have the money to hire, so we laid off basically half of our background investigators. We laid off our recruiter, because we just did not see a position in the near future where we were going to be able to use them to capacity.”
Last week, Frome said the bureau planned to post an advertisement on Monday to begin building a list of potential hires. But it doesn’t foresee being able to hire anyone for a very long time. The bureau has been instructed to prepare for a 5% cut in the next budget, or about $10 million.
“We’re doing everything we can to avoid layoffs,” Frome said.
Morale in the tank
So why are people leaving? Frome said it’s a mix of reasons. One officer cited a desire to be near family. “Other ones say ‘I just don’t like working in Portland anymore, because the job just doesn’t make me happy,'” Frome said. “You get some (who) throw shade and say, ‘the City Council has created this horrible place for us.’ But you don’t see that from everybody.”
In general, he said, “They’re leaving because they just don’t enjoy working here anymore.”
It’s not a crisis situation yet, Frome said, because about 50 officer-trainees will be ready for solo duty next year. The next wave of retirements is not expected until 2022.
The goal is to avoid a big age gap that leads to a staffing crisis down the road, he added.
Asked about the trend, Brian Hunzeker, the new president of the Portland Police Association, said he suspects other cities are seeing officers leave in mid-career as well. He said it’s not surprising officers are unhappy given Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s claim in July that police were setting fires to blame them on protesters, as well as District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s decisions not to file charges against numerous people the police arrested after declaring that protests had become riots.
Bureau under strain
A major goal of some of the protesters has been to abolish all police, or at least reduce the number, arguing that to do so will reduce racial inequities.
The City Council rebuffed an effort by Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly to further cut the police budget earlier this year as some of the protest organizers have demanded.
Asked about the resignations, Hardesty declined to comment. She told KATU in November that she supported a hiring pause, saying the city needs to sort out the bureau’s “dysfunctional culture.”
Given the overtime spending, the bureau’s pause on hiring and the wave of resignations, is it fair to say the “defund the police” movement is getting its way?
“For a lot of these people that are choosing to go somewhere else, they spent a lot of months this last summer constantly being yelled at to ‘Quit your job, quit your job.'” Frome said. “That cumulative toll on our officers, it builds up. So in some ways, yes, there is a win by those that would want the police to be defunded.”
The Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group’s papers are a KOIN 6 News media partner