Doug Brown

FOR A BUREAU that’s hemorrhaged employees and struggled to recruit new ones, the results of a survey of current Portland police officers may signal even worse news.

According to that survey, administered by a group of Chicago academics overseeing Portland police reform, cops feel burned out, emotionally hardened, and increasingly unsatisfied working for the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). Most feel they are more disrespected by the public and the media compared to 2015, and nearly all feel more reluctant, because of criticism, to use force when “appropriate.”

“Officers described an intense sense of scrutiny that prohibits them from ‘doing their job,” says a report on the survey. “A number of officers stated they fear for officer safety because of such scrutiny.”

And for civil rights advocates and police watchdogs, the survey reveals even more hurdles to true police reform.

A vast majority of those surveyed believe that the city’s settlement agreement with the United States Department of Justice (DOJ)—stemming from the federal investigation of the PPB’s mistreatment of mentally ill people—is just a “distraction” from their jobs that would not improve the bureau. Most said that “stop and frisk” policing, which was ruled unconstitutional (though not officially implemented here, as Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner points out to the Mercury), has a “bad reputation for no reason at all.” And a majority of cops do not believe civilian oversight of the bureau is a good thing.

The survey, released last month, was conducted this summer during a particularly turbulent period for the police bureau: Then-Chief Larry O’Dea went on leave in May after news broke he shot a friend in the back during a camping trip in rural Eastern Oregon in April.

“It might have different findings next year because they were incredibly pissed at the double standard—that [O’Dea] shot someone off-duty and there was no internal investigation and there seemed to be no accountability for the higher ups,” says Portland Copwatch’s Dan Handelman, who’s been closely following the bureau for more than two decades.

Doug Brown

Much has changed since cops were polled: Chief Mike Marshman has taken over the bureau and a new contract with the Portland Police Association union—featuring a significant 9 percent pay raise—was recently ratified. Still, the results indicate barriers Marshman will have to overcome to appease his officers, the feds, and groups eagerly awaiting reform.

The so-called Compliance Officer-Community Liaison (COCL) team, a group of mostly Chicago-based academics keeping tabs on DOJ-spurred reforms to the bureau, conducted the survey. They sent out emails to every one of the PPB’s employees, and got answers from 421 sworn officers (out of a possible 880) and 144 civilian employees (see the full report below).

The main takeaway from the survey, according to Handelman, is that more officers are “disengaging” from potentially physical encounters with people with perceived mental illness, “not because it’s the right thing to do,” he says, but to cover their own asses and avoid criticism.

“This concept of liability and negative image has caused many officers to feel that inaction is preferable to action,” the COCL report says, concluding that because of “all the criticism directed at the police today,” 99.2 percent of officers are “more reluctant to use force on a person with mental illness when it is appropriate.”

But isn’t that a good thing for police watchdogs? Not necessarily, says Handelman, who compared it to a mechanic refusing to do needed maintenance on your car so as not to be held responsible when it breaks down in the future.

“They’re disengaging to the point where they’re not doing things we ask people to do in our society,” he says. “It’s kind of like an all-or-nothing game for them: ‘If I can’t beat up people in mental health crises, then I’m not going to deal with them at all.’”

The survey also reveals general attitudes of Portland police officers:

• Only 21 percent of officers are satisfied working for the PPB. This is a massive drop from last year’s survey, when 57 percent professed satisfaction.

• A stunning 82 percent say the DOJ settlement won’t improve the PPB. Even more, 92 percent, say it’s a distraction keeping them from doing their job.

• Just 5 percent of officers never feel burned out from their profession (compared to 9 percent last year). Only 6 percent never feel emotionally drained because of it (compared to 4 percent last year). And 87 percent believe “this job is hardening me emotionally,” compared to 78 percent from the year before.

• Regarding “stop and frisk”—when officers question and search people on the street, fishing for evidence of a crime—72 percent of PPB officers said it’s “gotten a bad reputation for no reason,” compared to 61 percent last year. In 2013, a federal judge ruled the New York Police Department’s use of the practice unconstitutional and racially discriminatory.

See the full report here