Earlier this week, Commissioner Steve Novick stirred a rare public conversation about drug policy and Portland's role in a dubious and expensive 40-year national crackdown—holding a hearing on his well-reasoned call to scale back the Portland Police Bureau's $4 million Drugs and Vice Division.
Police Chief Mike Reese, meanwhile, was definitively firm in defending the drugs unit—which he led a decade ago, just before his assent into the bureau's inner circle. He lamented the cuts his old unit has already taken in recent years, calling it a "shell" of itself. And he warned of an explosion of crime if the unit were eliminated (even if that's not quite what Novick is asking).
There might have been more drama. But Reese is a cool cucumber in public—only rarely letting his frustrations (never rage) show through. He should have invited another DVD alum to speak in his stead: Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner.
Turner, as he does, sent out a slightly more impassioned defense of the unit and its work to his nearly 1,000 rank-and-file members the day of the hearing. His argument? Chaos and iniquity would return to Portland without a drugs unit (again, not quite what Novick is advocating). And the city might also lose millions in property forfeitures from drug cases—which might be a bigger reason for opposition than anyone would be willing to admit.
Getting rid of the Portland Police Bureau Drugs and Vice Division would be like pulling out your front teeth to save money on toothpaste.
During the early to mid-1990's, the Drugs and Vice Division worked with the Portland Police Bureau Gang Enforcement Team and uniform Patrol Officers and were a crucial player in helping clean up the gang drug trade, thus helping reduce the gang violence that was then rampant in Portland. In the late 1990's and early 2000's, the Drugs and Vice Division was a majority player in the war on meth houses and meth labs in the Portland Metro area. Over the last year, the Division has amassed approximately $2 million in forfeitures. As a member of the Drugs and Vice Division for a number of years, I remember going into meth labs in homes where children and elderly people lived. I remember feeling sick the day after and wondering how those exposed to the labs every day had any kind of quality of life. And I remember the case where we caught the drug dealer who dealt a lethal case of Ecstasy to a nursing student who was the single mother of a young child. If these aren't livability issues, then what are?
Catching the mid and upper-level drug dealers may not have a noticeable effect on the drug smuggling trade coming into the country, but it has a huge impact on the street level drugs that hit the streets of Portland, school yards, and neighborhoods. Seeing the work of the Portland Police Bureau Drugs and Vice Division first hand, both as a uniformed officer and as a member of the Unit, gives me and people like the cops who have worked in the Drugs and Vice Division, first-hand knowledge of how ugly it could get if the funding for the Drugs and Vice Division was reduced or cut out all-together. The streets of downtown Portland and Northeast Portland were once an open air drug market; homes, apartments, hotels, and businesses in Southeast Portland neighborhoods were infested by meth labs of all types. The Drugs and Vice Division played a big part in cleaning that up and still today is as active as ever in keeping drugs off of the streets and out of the neighborhoods and school yards, helping to make Portland one of the safest, most livable cities in the United States. Saving a little money now will surely cost much more later!
Turner sent out the statement with a picture of him, post meth bust, wearing a hazmat suit. He actually gives a better argument than Reese did, or the police officials who spoke with Novick before the hearing: That the work of the officer who do deal with neighborhood level crimes (the drugs unit only handles mid- to major investigations) would find their work much more difficult.
It would be interesting to see if that's supported by data. But the ease of that kind of argument illustrates the political hurdle Novick's facing. A lot of people probably agree with it, even though the bureau's own analysts have written about the "limited" role the DVD plays in disrupting local supplies.