In the midst of this morning's vote to approve Portland's next operating budget, due to take effect July 1, City Commissioner Steve Novick revived his controversial push to cut the Portland Police Bureau's Drugs and Vice Division—issuing an 11th-hour amendment asking his colleagues to phase out the unit starting in summer of 2015.
Novick's motion—written in the form of a "budget note" meant to guide next spring's budget process—also looked to slice out arguably redundant command staffers in the bureau's records and personnel decisions. That last bit marked "a modest step" toward realizing the results of a city study on supervisor ratios that found the police particularly top heavy. All told, Novick's plan would have reduced the cops' ongoing budget by $783,456, converting that sum to one-time funding instead.
This amendment changes the funding source for 5.0 Officers and 1.0 Sergeant in the Police Bureau Drug and Vice Division, 1.0 Captain from the Records Division and 1.0 Lieutenant from Personnel Division. The funding source changes from General Fund ongoing to one-time funds. All positions will be converted from regular full-time to limited-term full-time positions. The Portland Police Bureau’s General Fund Current Appropriation Level for FY 2015-16 is reduced by $783,456.
But almost as quickly as it arose, the motion was put down. Mayor Charlie Hales, who actually oversees the police bureau, swiftly indicated he'd vote no—followed by City Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish. The whole discussion was a brief burst of drama in an otherwise scripted process that rarely sees commissioners so boldly and forcefully veer from their prescribed policy lanes.
"Forty years of experience and research related to the war on drugs indicates arresting dealers simply because they're drug dealers is not an effective strategy. As long as there is demand there will be a supply," Novick explained before his colleagues took their shots.
But it wasn't just a question of funding a failed policy, as he sees it, he said. He also touched on another live wire that was largely punted during this year's budget discussion: What to do when a temporary fire bureau grant expires in January 2016, leaving 26 firefighters potentially without jobs? (Police and fire, along with parks, continue to account for the lion's share of the city's operating budget.)
"The work those firefighters perform is more valuable than chasing drug dealers," Novick said. "I'd prefer to put the bureaus to some extent on a level playing field going into next year. I would rather preserve some of the firefighter jobs than preserve all of the drugs and vice division."
Novick's general argument—rethinking police policy and command staffing—was given praise and lip service by all of his colleagues. But it particularly resonated with with Commissioner Amanda Fritz. To make her point, she pointed to the end of a two-year deal, next summer, that's kept alive the cops' mounted patrol.
"We should put the police bureau on notice we're hoping to see some efficiencies," she said.
Of course, by the time Fritz voted, it was clear no one else was going to follow. Hales, who normally votes last on amendments and ordinances, used his role as the council's presiding officer to explain his "no" vote immediately after Novick presented his plan.
"It's okay for us to raise uncomfortable questions about how we do business," Hales took pains to clarify before hitting the specifics of Novick's idea, saying he truly didn't mind Novick working like a member of the city's "board of directors," raising issues "regardless of turf."
Then came the cold steel. He said he'd rather wait for a police bureau staffing study this fall before cutting any command staff and making other resource reallocations within the bureau. He also reiterated, when pressed by Fish, that he wants to talk about saving firefighter jobs and remains committed to not having any layoffs.
"We don't have to drop Peter to pay Paul now," Hales said. "We've got a year to figure it out."
Fish largely echoed the mayor, thanking Novick for the conversation even as he declined to support it. But it was Fish, as noted, who made sure to get Hales on record supporting some further public discussions about both the fire bureau and the command staff questions lingering in the police bureau. That was also reasonable.
Saltzman's vote against Novick's measure was less reasonable. He focused on his lens of "children," worried that losing the drugs and vice unit would leave children stranded in drug houses with marijuana, which he implied was dangerous and involved with guns, equating it with meth.
It fell to Novick to point out, after Saltzman voted, that the city's drugs unit doesn't actually focus on drug houses. It leaves that work to neighborhood response units to focus on higher-level organized crime dealers. Which means the kids would still be just as well off, or not, whether Novick got his way or not.
"It is appropriate to reduce the amount of resources were dedicating to an ineffective strategy," Novick said.
Maybe next year.