Todd Saucier

How thin can the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) trim some of its specialized units? We will find out soon, as the bureau finalizes plans this week to pluck officers and sergeants from a number of areas to compensate for sinking numbers within patrol, the bureau’s visible front line that responds to 911 and non-emergency calls.

“There are no good options,” PPB spokesperson Sergeant Peter Simpson tells the Mercury. “We have to pick the best of bad options. No matter what we do, we suffer a little bit. It’s trying to find out the best way to suffer the least.”

Last week, during a work session with Portland City Council, PPB brass proposed transferring about 25 officers from nine units to join the bureau’s 331 existing patrol officers. Three sergeants from those units will likely join them. Recently appointed Police Chief Mike Marshman will finalize the figures this week, Simpson says, with the shifts taking place as soon as mid-October. That’s the quickest that involuntary transfers can take place due to the city’s contract with its main police union, the Portland Police Association.

The bureau’s been forced into this position by a number of factors. Portland’s population is booming while the police force is dwindling as members retire. At the same time, the PPB is having trouble attracting new recruits. That means response time for 911 calls is increasing, and remaining cops have less “free time” to build relationships with the community.

“Our projected separations—due to retirement or resignations to other law enforcement agencies—exceeds our hiring ability,” Marshman told Mayor Charlie Hales and the rest of city council last week. He said the bureau needs to hire 385 sworn members over the next five years—an average of 77 per year, compared to the average of 25 hired over each of the previous five years—to make up for recent and expected vacancies, despite having few applicants. “Most importantly, our limited staffing on the street, and in the bureau in general, really, truly hurts our relationship-based policing efforts,” Marshman said.

(The meeting starts 9:08 into the video)

The chief’s proposed tweaks come from all around the bureau. He suggested transferring seven of the Traffic Division’s 39 officers and one of its nine sergeants to patrol. From the tactical operations division—home of the Gang Enforcement Team—five of the 26 officers and one of 10 sergeants may be moving.

“The work that each of those units does is needed,” the PPB’s Simpson tells the Mercury, “but at the core function, we’ve got to be able to respond to calls for service from the patrol ranks.”

Not everybody on council was upset that some of these units will be trimmed. Commissioner Steve Novick has been a longtime critic of the Drugs and Vice Division’s staffing and budget, and said last week that “trying to intercept the supply of drugs is fruitless.” Four of the 19 officers and one of the five sergeants in that division could be headed to patrol.

Likely joining them are one of five officers in the Personnel Division, one of five officers in the Criminal Intelligence Unit, one of two “RegJIN Sustainment Team” officers helping with bureau computer records, both of the Strategic Services Division officers who analyze crime statistics (non-sworn employees will still work there), and one of three investigators the bureau sends to the district attorney’s office.

And in a move that might generate outcry, Marshman is considering chopping the Mounted Patrol Unit (MPU) in half, from four officers to two.

The bureau essentially admits the MPU, the cops who ride around on horseback, serves no real law-enforcement function other than public relations. “People who may not even like the police will come up to the horses and have a conversation with officers while they pet the horse,” said Assistant Chief Chris Uehara. Still, calls to kill the unit during recent budget crunches have been met with community outcry—with moneyed Portlanders even chipping in to help pay for the MPU in past years.

“You’re asking us to pick our poison,” said City Commissioner Nick Fish. “We’re essentially thinning the soup and it’s going to have an impact, in my view, on public safety.”

Marshman responded: “What we’re trying to do is thread the needle in multiple ways—it’s very hard to prioritize these... I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this strategy works.”

In the meantime, the bureau is attempting to speed up its recruiting and hiring process.

“It’s simply taking too long to get into the Portland Police Bureau,” said Assistant Chief Mike Leloff at the meeting last week. “We’re looking from beginning to end. Yesterday we had a discussion about how it needs to be six months to get in and not 13 or 14 months.”

Simpson told the Mercury it actually takes about nine months to get hired by the PPB—because of exams, physical and psychological evaluations, and lengthy background checks—but that’s way longer than it should take. Many police departments are hiring, he said, “so you’re competing for candidates who have a lot of choices,” including from departments that can give them official job offers sooner. The PPB is trying to bring in more recruits without lowering standards, he said.

The bureau currently has six background investigators to check on recruits’ pasts, which takes up a significant amount of time in the hiring process. Officials want to have 20 of the non-sworn investigators to reduce caseload and get potential officers screened sooner.

The bureau’s also trying to broaden the areas it recruits from, particularly going after people living in California and working in the military. Recruiting locally, especially minorities, has proven difficult.

“You’re in one of the whitest cities in America,” says Simpson, “so trying to recruit people of color from your own city is a challenge. We’d love to hire local, believe me.”

At last week’s work session, Marshman said that only a few hundred recruits have recently taken the test to become a Portland Police officer, compared to a few thousand vying to become a firefighter, “so we’re cognizant of removing every single barrier possible to get a qualified applicant pool.”