Twice last week, the Portland Police Bureau claimed that a lack of manpower makes it hard to meet basic law enforcement needs in the city. But it seems the city's ongoing failure to recruit cops is what's really putting both the public and officers at risk.
On Tuesday, November 20, Captain Vince Jarmer of the traffic division told the Bicycle Transportation Alliance's Karl Rohde that he would like to see a traffic officer investigate all crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians—but they lack the personnel. The same morning, Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese told reporters that the short-term success of an Old Town drug mission—resulting in 68 felony warrants being issued to suspected drug dealers ["Cracksploitation!" News, Oct 25]—only happened with help from other precincts. "We can't sustain this enforcement effort," he said.
So why is the Portland Police Bureau short-staffed?
The problem isn't money—the Portland Police Bureau's five precincts are already authorized by the city's budget to employ 494 officers on patrol, although currently there are just 380 working. In reality, the bureau can't seem to recruit the necessary cops.
Central Precinct is authorized for 99 officers but only has 75: In other parts of the city, East Precinct has only filled 104 of its 139 funded positions, Northeast 79 of its 99, North 39 out of 48, and Southeast 83 out of 109. Portland ranks far behind the likes of Denver and Seattle, cities that employ 2.59 officers per 1,000 population and 2.21 officers per 1,000 population, respectively. (Seattle just added funding for 150 more officers on top of that.) Portland employs just 1.83 officers per 1,000 residents, with a total of 989 officers in the bureau as a whole, including those who don't patrol the streets, in a city of 540,389 people. The national average is 2.79 officers per 1,000 population, Portland is 518 officers short of that average.
Less cops means longer hours for existing officers, affecting their ability to deliver good service, protect each other, and of course, protect the public.
"We've been doing more with less for so long that it's hard to provide basic law enforcement services, much less do extra," says downtown street crimes Sergeant Chris Davis, who is left short-handed in his attempt to tackle crack dealing in Old Town. "Every day people are hired on overtime just to respond to calls."
One issue impacting downtown law enforcement on Davis' beat is the presence of 30 private, non-union rent-a-cops from Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI)—paid for by the Portland Business Alliance—whose responsibilities are often confused in the eyes of the community with those of real police officers. But Chief Rosie Sizer says PPI is not the problem.
"It's not just about PPI," she says. "Privatization of security has been a phenomenon that's been taking place for decades now and it's a reflection of people's need for security being higher than the government is able to deliver. And honestly, police officers are expensive."
In Sizer's eyes, the real problem is the bureau's "archaic recruitment system," which has not changed since she was recruited in 1987. The background and hiring process in Portland currently takes over a year, compared with just two to three months in Hillsboro, and an average of three months in Gresham, according to those police departments—two local competitors to which Portland is losing applicants eager to start their careers. Sizer hired civilian recruiter Sean Murray six months ago to streamline Portland's hiring process.
"The goal is six months or less [for the background and hiring process]," she says. "I've not given [Murray] a deadline, but I hope and expect we'll achieve it in the next year."
Murray could not be reached for comment. Meanwhile, Police union boss Robert King lays the blame for the bureau's recruitment struggles squarely at Mayor Tom Potter's door.
"When he was police chief, the mayor said he needed 200 more officers to do community policing," says King. "It's interesting now that he is commissioner, we're down 50 officers since he was chief. Apparently he does not see the need for more officers today."
Sizer says the mayor's office has been supportive of her efforts to streamline the recruitment process, and doesn't appear to share King's animosity toward Potter.
"Police agencies across the country are experiencing the same shortages we are," says John Doussard, Potter's spokesman. "Plus Portland is experiencing an unprecedented number of retirements."