It's been nearly two months since Commissioner Steve Novick raised eyebrows in Portland City Hall with a memo urging his colleagues to consider millions in additional cuts to the police bureau's budget—leading with a call to cut the bureau's mounted patrol, but tacking on an equally sensitive call to whack back its drugs and vice division.
He's already put some of his colleagues on record with doubts about horse cops.
And now, at Novick's behest, we'll find out where they might stand on his other idea: At 12:30 tomorrow, the Portland City Council will take up the issue—for all of a half of an hour—at the tail end of an hours-long city budget work session.
"The mayor knows I want to have the discussion," Novick says. "He didn't say don't have the discussion."
By now, everyone ought to know. Novick's been talking about the drugs and vice division ever since he got on the council. He's been meeting more recently with Police Chief Mike Reese, Captain Mark Kruger of the drugs and vice division, and Deanna Wesson-Mitchell, the former police officer working on cop issues in Mayor Charle Hales' office.
His beef is partly about policy. The "war on drugs," ever more expensive, has failed to make a real dent in addiction rates and drug crime. It's partly about the realities of Portland's peculiar financial circumstances. After last year's budget cuts, the city has just a modest surplus to spend this year. Novick sees a unit focused on a "failed," national drug war and sees a way to squeeze out more cash for other priorities.
"If I could expand the pot [of surplus cash] from $6 million to $7 million," he said, "that would be a big step."
But Novick also realizes he's up for a tough sell. He's been given several arguments for keeping the drugs and vice division around. He says many of them aren't quite convincing enough.
At first he was given a history lesson, about the year in the mid-1980s when the bureau, under Chief Penny Harrington did away with the unit—only to see start it back up again a year later under a wave of arrests. That happened to coincide with the national arrival of the crack-cocaine epidemic.
"There was an explosion of drug use generally in the mid- to late '80s that I don't think Penny Harrington was responsible for personally," Novick says.
Then Reese, steeped in social services, told him the people who use hard drugs might use them less if the supply of their drugs was interrupted. And that those people might even seek treatment. But the bureau wasn't able to correlate that lofty aspiration with hard numbers.
Wesson-Mitchell took another tack, telling Novick that drug investigations are used to go after violent criminals—because drug charges might stick when other charges won't. Or they can be used as leverage to get smaller criminals to squeal about bigger criminals.
"I watch Law and Order," he says. "I know that sort of thing happens."
But that wasn't the whole story. Kruger told him only about half of the cases worked by the drugs and vice unit are "ancillary" to investigations worked by other police units.
"Then maybe you keep that half," he says, finding fault with the other half.
The drugs unit, Novick points out, also doesn't do much with vice, these days. It has one officer working on liquor licenses. Prostitution and neighborhood-level drug dealing are handled by other units.
And as for how effective the unit might be, Novick shared an analysis (pdf)—done by the police bureau itself—that raises some difficult questions about the dent one city's drug unit can make on a drug market already controlled by organized crime and inflamed by a lousy national economy.
"I'm not on any crusade to legalize drugs," he explains, "but there are things we do out of inertia. This seems to be something worth revisiting."
Novick wouldn't mind freeing up cash for other priorities outside the police bureau: a westside disaster operations center, among them. But he says he could live with redistribution within the police bureau, especially if that redistribution helps restore traffic division's night shift.
He also says his colleagues—the council collectively requested millions more in new spending, several times more than the city's small surplus—are extremely interested in doing similar math problems. Never mind the political lift involved a year after cutting the police bureau pretty deeply.
"They think this is a line of inquiry worth pursuing," he says.
We'll see how that goes tomorrow.