If you spend time downtown, you're apt to run into someone in a uniform who can—among other tasks—issue you a citation, and may even be carrying a gun. However, it's not necessarily a police officer.
There's a one-in-four chance it's an officer with Portland Patrol, Incorporated (PPI)—a private security firm employing 17 armed former police officers and 13 unarmed security guards. The armed officers are dead ringers for Portland Police Bureau bike cops, albeit with "security" emblazoned on their yellow jackets instead of "police," and the unarmed PPI officers dress in black. Their task: to carry out "order maintenance" in the city's Downtown Business Improvement District. PPI is funded by the Portland Business Alliance through its Clean and Safe Program.
Budget and hiring shortfalls mean the city's cops—there are 91 full-time police officers currently assigned to the bureau's Central Precinct—rely on PPI to be their "eyes and ears," in the words of Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese. PPI and police leadership meet regularly, and since January, PPI officers have been handing out laminated cards to downtown businesses, urging them to call PPI with regard to "Homeless Persons," "Panhandling," and the "Mentally Ill." In other words, PPI officers are often downtown's first respondents when it comes to interacting with the homeless or other people on the street, and they work closely with the police bureau. Four of PPI's officers are actually "embedded" police officers with the power to make arrests—one of whom was recently photographed outside Pioneer Place, with his hand apparently around the neck of a street kid ["Choked Up," News, March 1].
The problem? For starters, it was revealed last week that Portland's downtown homeless can't always tell the difference between PPI officers and the real police. Meanwhile, there's little public oversight of PPI officers—though some carry guns and perform police-like duties.
"There is confusion on the streets between Portland Police and private security officers," Street Roots Director Israel Bayer told a meeting of the city's Citizen Review Committee—a nine-member group that oversees the Independent Police Review program that handles Portland Police Bureau complaints—last Tuesday, March 20. "We don't know anything about [PPI officers], but we know they are telling our constituents what to do."
Meanwhile, regular PPI officers also don't have as much training as regular cops: While police bureau officers have regular training, plus 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training to learn how to interact with the mentally ill, PPI officers have just 12 to 27 total hours of training before starting work.
Bayer's comments prompted questions about what kind of oversight is in place for PPI. When asked if the Independent Police Review receives complaints about the private firm, Director Leslie Stevens indicated that they do: "I don't have a really good feel, but we do get—not infrequently—complaints about PPI."
Stevens says her office doesn't investigate or track these misdirected complaints, but refers them to PPI.
Other complaints apparently head straight to the Portland Business Alliance. "We have heard some complaints about harassment of folks on the streets by PPI officers," says Alejandro Queral of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center. "But it's hard enough to get people to complain about the police. With PPI, all I know is that if you have a complaint, you can call the Portland Business Alliance and they will tell you it will be passed on to a supervisor, but that is certainly not enough."
In theory, complaints about PPI should be passed to the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST), in Salem—the department certifies all PPI officers—but the DPSST says no complaints about PPI have been sent.
"It's just not a very transparent process," says Bayer.
Following Bayer's testimony, though, the Citizen Review Committee may ask PPI leaders to attend a meeting and explain how the program works.
But while the cops answer questions from the public—including reporters—about their activities, PPI doesn't have to.
The Mercury has attempted to find out more about PPI—including what happened to any complaints forwarded from the Independent Police Review—but questions have gone largely unanswered. According to PPI Chief Executive John Hren, it is against the firm's policy to respond to questions from the press.
The Mercury emailed 13 questions about PPI to Portland Business Alliance (PBA)'s Mike Kuykendall. He responded by saying only that the PBA has a contractual relationship with PPI and that its officers are licensed by the state and certified by the DPSST. The PBA's communications director, Christine Egan, declined to comment further.
"It doesn't surprise me that there's no third-party oversight," says City Commissioner Erik Sten. "But there should be."