How many cops is too few or too many?

Portland

Potential cuts would slash police budget by more than 12%

A Portland Police officer puts up crime scene tape (KOIN).

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Two members of the Portland City Council want to further cut the Portland Police Bureau. But how small is too small, and how big is too big?

Earlier this year, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty joined with Mayor Ted Wheeler to spearhead cuts to the Portland police budget of $15 million.

Now Hardesty and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly are pushing for another $18 million in cuts, with the support of civil rights activists like Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. 

Singh points to racial disparities in traffic stops and arrests, and says police spending comes at a cost to other services: The city should “deconstruct and dismantle as much as we can, and then build (the bureau) back up in a way that actually serves the community.”

The push for more cuts comes after months of local protests of racial inequities and police violence, and graffiti around town calling, not for reforms, but for police to be abolished altogether.

Similar calls have occurred elsewhere, but even bold initiatives to shrink the police in other cities have largely foundered, according to a recent Associated Press article. If the new cuts in Portland go through, the police budget will have been slashed by more than 12%.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell and the union representing officers, the Portland Police Association, have pushed back on the cuts, saying funding is needed to fight crime and to allow the reforms and community-oriented policing that the public prefers.

The City Council will hold a hearing on Hardesty’s and Eudaly’s proposal on the afternoon of Wed., Oct. 28, and vote on it next Thursday, Nov. 5.

So how many police officers is too many?

City has fewer cops

Currently, Portland has 873 officers and 44 vacancies. That compares to 962 officers in 2013, 908 in 2016, and 889 officers last year, according to data reported to the federal government. 

Compared to other cities on the basis of population, that’s not a lot. In 2016, a survey by Governing Magazine found that Portland, then with 908 officers — 14.1 officers per 10,000 population — had about 29% fewer cops than Seattle. Compared with all cities with more than 500,000 people, Portland had 42% fewer cops per capita.

Last year, Portland’s number of officers dropped to 889 even as the city’s population grew. In contrast, in the same three-year span in Seattle, the number of officers grew from 1,384 to 1,416.

Experts and activists, however, say the ratio of officers per capita is irrelevant. The number of officers, they say, should reflect crime rates, workload and community expectations of public safety — such as the time it takes to respond to high-priority 911 calls, including for violent crimes.

Over the last two decades, crime rates have generally gone down in Portland, as they have all across the country. The big exceptions this year include shootings and homicides. Since last year, the city has seen a rash of shootings that police describe as likely gang-related. This year the city is on course for well over 40 homicides — the highest number in years.

Police officials have said that the victims of the violence have been disproportionately people of color. Of the 38 individuals who were shot in July in the city of Portland, 25 were African American, four were Hispanic and nine were white, Lovell said in an August press conference.

“Black people are overrepresented heavily on the victim side,” he said.

In reporting for Unequal Justice, a 2017 series of articles by the journalism nonprofit InvestigateWest and the Portland Tribune, police and activists agreed that the bureau’s focus on shootings and gang violence, as well as the bias of 911 callers in the city, likely contributes to many of the disparities that show up in criminal justice figures locally.

At the time, then—Captain Kevin Modica noted that the police come at the end of “a cascading tumble” of systems and issues that tend to disproportionately affect people of color, including poverty, poor schools, and a lack of family support — the latter itself often influenced by prison disparities.

Hardesty last year spearheaded the push to emulate successful programs in Eugene and elsewhere to respond to some 911 calls with non-police personnel, a project called Portland Street Reponse. 

The new pilot program is just now hiring — so it’s not yet clear whether the Portland model — which differs significantly from Eugene’s — will deliver the same level of success. 

Response times suffer

In August of this year, Chief Lovell blamed nightly clashes following protests for dramatically draining police patrol staffing, and for boosting the time it takes to respond to high-priority 911 calls.

According to the Oregon Justice Resource Center, response times for high-priority calls — often violent crimes, sometimes in progress — over the last 12 months have averaged 10 minutes. 

The Portland bureau’s past goal was to respond in less than five minutes to high-priority emergency calls.

“Wow,” said former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, when told of the current number. Stamper, now affiliated with the reform-minded nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Partnership, has been a vocal leader in criticizing police response to Black Lives Matter protests and has called for limiting the role of police, such as by legalizing drugs. 

Stamper said it’s not surprising that the budget drain caused by protest response is boosting those response times. He recommended looking at past years for a better gauge of police staffing.

Between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, the average response time was about eight minutes — about the same as it was the year before.

Since July 1 of this year, the average response time to high-priority 911 calls has grown to 14 minutes.

Stamper said eight-minute response times like Portland has had in the past years are not uncommon. But ideally, on true emergency calls, “if you’re looking at a standard for a big city, you want somebody there within two or three minutes.”

He said the complexity of determining appropriate police staffing “can be staggering.” But he said it should be worked through in a full community discussion that gets into the details of what police do and where they are needed.

“I think it’s utterly foolish to cut a certain dollar figure, or to cut a certain number of officers without thinking about the public safety demands,” he said.

Among the cuts Hardesty and Eudaly have proposed is all funding used by the Special Emergency Reaction Team — Portland’s version of SWAT. 

All full-time positions reserved for team members were cut earlier this year. 

The new proposal means that if the bureau needs to find money to keep the team going, it would have to find it elsewhere.

In 1984, Stamper responded to the massacre of 21 people and wounding of 19 more at a McDonald’s in a San Diego when he worked for that city’s police department. He said it was crucial having trained cops and snipers — one of whom eventually killed the shooter. 

While there’s nuance in the debate around police gang teams, he said, the idea of disbanding special response teams “makes no sense.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner

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