Last week, Mayor Tom Potter announced a five-point plan to clean up an alleged crime problem downtown. His plan establishes a curfew in the Park Blocks (9 pm!) and gives the green light to cops to crack down on aggressive panhandling. It also tosses some funding toward drug treatment programs.
The goal for this crackdown, explained Potter, is that, "Within six months, I want to hear people saying, 'downtown just feels better now.'"
To listen to supporters and proponents of the crackdown, one might think that downtown, from Pioneer Square to Old Town, is bustling not with office workers and Banana Republic shoppers, but with ghoulish junkies and sneering teenagers threatening respectful citizens at every step.
The Oregonian editorial board glowed about the new plan. And why not? For the past year, they have run stories drumming up the idea that crime is rampant around downtown, and that the street punks are scaring off shoppers and tourism.
But in reporting on Potter's new crackdown, the Oregonian inadvertently highlighted their prejudices [Editorial, Oct 12]. "The mayor announced an ambitious plan to shore up security," wrote the Oregonian's editorial board, "zero in on aggressive panhandling... and reverse the widespread perception that downtown isn't as safe as it used to be." The key word in that announcement is "perception." Throughout the remainder of the article the Oregonian editors fail to cite a single crime stat. Why is that? Because, overall, crime rates have dropped by seven percent downtown!
Yet despite this continual drop in crime throughout downtown, the mayor's office has formulated a policing strategy as if crime were actually worsening. Not surprisingly, backing this approach are the usual suspects—namely, the Portland Business Alliance, the district attorney, and conservative law-and-order neighborhood associations. (Oddly, the committee formed to oversee the initiative also includes a representative from the Portland Trail Blazers.)
Over the past few years, these groups have pushed initiatives such as sit-lie rules and Drug Free Zones, which ultimately aim to move the less-desirables out of the downtown area. But at various times, those policing tools have been struck down for infringing on constitutionally protected rights. Likewise, the new plan flirts with constitutional concerns. Cities like San Francisco, which have enacted ordinances against "aggressive panhandling," have faced lawsuits for infringing on free speech.
But John Doussard, the mayor's spokesperson, said that "The mayor was willing to do nothing that infringed on people's individual rights or personal expression," as if that was a generous concession and not a constitutionally protected right. He added that there is a legal division to determine when panhandling "crosses the line."
"For example," he explained, "it is illegal to ask someone for money and threaten them with an action, 'Give me a dollar or I'll knock you down.'" (Yes, that crime is called assault). Doussard also claimed (citing only anecdotal evidence) that police have reported an increase in panhandlers stealing money.
"The most popular [method] is someone reaching into their wallet to give a panhandler a buck, and then having a $20 boosted," he told the Mercury. (Yes, that crime is called theft.)
But what the mayor's office did not answer is, why not simply police the crimes of assault and theft? Why add fuel to the perception that panhandlers and homeless are criminals?
What is most dangerous about Potter's new plan is that it signals a disturbing trend in the mayor's leadership style. Potter had a ripe opportunity. If he wanted to dismiss the notion that crime is polluting downtown, he could have forcefully explained that those beliefs are perceptions—and not reality. That would have been an uncomfortable stance, bucking the prevailing winds set by powerful downtown business owners and the Oregonian editorial board. But those announcements would have gone a long way to set the record straight that the homeless are not dangerous and criminal.
Instead, Potter has chosen the unscientific approach to forming public policy—based not on facts, but on perceptions. More precisely, he has chosen not to be a leader, but to follow the prejudices of downtown business owners.