Docs: Ex-PPB officers cite low morale, burnout as reasons for leaving

Special Reports

Portland police officers in Northwest Portland, Aug. 25, 2019. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Complaints about City Council, the spike in crime, and the overall downturn of Portland were grievances repeatedly mentioned by departing police bureau staff in 2020 and early 2021 exit interviews. 

Portland Police Bureau officers did not hold back in explaining why they were leaving or retiring from the bureau, according to the exit interview documents released by the city after a public records request, which were first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Some said the bureau was once a great place to work, but not anymore. 

“The lack of real decisive communication from the 15th floor is as bad as I’ve seen in my 27.5 years at PPB. Most of the leaders are intimidated by the political will of city hall and cannot separate policing & politics,” a retiring traffic sergeant said. “This is the beginning of some of the worst times this agency has ever been in.” 

Many complaints stemmed from recent issues. One person said restrictions the Department of Justice placed on the bureau in recent years destroyed the bureau’s ability to properly police in the city. Others said they reached their breaking point after enduring ongoing civil unrest

Several employees said they would never recommend this job to friends or colleagues. The risk of being laid off was another common factor affecting people’s departures. 

Some said they’re just feeling burned out. 

“I have never seen morale so low, officers leaving mid-career and sometimes sooner to go to other agencies. Officers retiring when they would have stayed longer if the situation were different. Officers de-policing due to fear of being accused of excessive force,” said an officer over the age of 60 who said he was leaving for family and personal circumstances and for retirement.  

While many of the departing officers said they were retiring, others said they’re leaving for other employment opportunities. 

One officer, a man between the age of 50 and 59, said his future employer will pay him the same salary he’s making at Portland Police Bureau. He said it’s a “police agency with more experienced and decisive chief’s office and a city council that supports the police department and the citizens of their city.” 

A departing public record specialist said they accepted a job closer to their home and that local leadership at the new position is more supportive of law enforcement. 

A Hispanic officer between age 30-39 said he wants a better work environment and a more satisfying job. 

“Actual community policing,” he said. “Being more helpful w/ the public. Too many officers believing they are better than the public because they are cops. The work feels robotic and much was for insurance purposes rather than the public.” 

Another employee, a Black woman between the age of 30-39 who worked in recruiting, said she would have stayed longer, but with change coming, her timing changed. She said she would have left eventually to further her family goals.  

Some officers said they wish Portland Police Bureau’s retire/rehire program was an option for them. 

At a media availability Wednesday, KOIN 6 News asked Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell if he thinks the bureau should only be able to hire new officers or if it should have the option to rehire retired officers. 

“I personally like the idea of being able to hire retired officers,” Lovell said. “If we did reinstitute the retire/rehire program kind of as it’s drawn up, it really doesn’t really give you any more people. It might let the people who are here retire and then come back to work, but it doesn’t increase your numbers.”

Lovell said it’s hard to see so many officers leaving the department. He said he’s spoken to some and he’s heard several of the issues causing them to leave. He also knows the bureau has asked a lot of its officers in the last nine to 10 months.

He said they’re averaging about four to five departures a month and at that rate, it becomes concerning. 

“A lot of city knowledge and relationships walk out the door when those people leave and that’s tough. We want to be a sought after employer. We want to be able to attract and retain the best people and that’s our goal,” he said. 

Lovell said in July 2022, 88 more people will be eligible to retire. 

Currently, the police bureau has 818 sworn members, 563 officers, and 98 vacancies. Lovell said there are six more people leaving in April and several others are currently undergoing background investigations with other agencies and could leave before the end of 2021. 

The chief said he’s recently put in a request with the city council to add $5.4 million back to the bureau’s budget for fiscal year 2022. This is an add back request to the $10 million that the bureau has been asked to cut. The police bureau said adding this this money back would allow them to hire for 39 sworn positions. They’re also seeking funding to add records and analyst employees 

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