City council agreed last Wednesday, August 1, to let the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) continue paying the salaries of three downtown police officers for the next 10 years, to the tune of $200,000 per year.
But civil rights and police oversight activists are concerned the contract essentially amounts to buying special treatment for downtown business owners over regular taxpayers.
"In this case what we have is a private entity paying the salaries of police officers to do something that, I assume, is pleasing them, otherwise they wouldn't continue to pay," said Copwatch activist Dan Handelman at the council session. "I think it would be better to a have a serious discussion with the community about what this means. If we raise enough money, can we buy our own police officers, too?"
The agreement, which extends an initial contract signed in 1998, allows the PBA to pay for three Portland police officers who supplement and work with the PBA's rent-a-cop private security firm, Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI). PPI officers patrol downtown dressed like cops, and many of them carry guns, but without any public oversight. They have issued more than 1,100 park exclusions in the city since last November and have drawn increased public scrutiny from homeless activist groups like Street Roots.
"I understand the value of public-private partnerships," Handelman continued. "But there's a thing called tax money. And most people, when they pay tax money, expect to get the same services as everybody else."
Central Precinct Commander Mike Reese sat next to the representatives from the PBA in council chambers, then faced questioning from City Commissioner Randy Leonard over the contract. Leonard asked whether the officers being paid by the PBA would narrow their service to the public as a result—focusing instead on downtown businesses.
"You see what the issue is here," said Leonard. "There is some sense that they're just doing the work of the PBA."
Reese responded that the officers assigned to work with PPI work directly for him, and that they're accountable to the citizens of downtown Portland through the Independent Police Review process—unlike their rent-a-cop counterparts.
However Reese's defense of the contract is at odds with the supervisory structure in place for the three officers. According to Reese, Special Events Sergeant Charles Fender supervises the trio—and the three are his only underlings. The rest of the time, the three officers work with PPI, carrying PPI radios in addition to their Portland Police Bureau ones, and attending PPI roll calls, according to a 2004 PBA document unearthed last week by Street Roots.
"This program is the only program in the nation where private security and local police work together on the same program, under the same roof," touts the document. "The contract provides two police officers, later increased to three, to work directly with the PPI. These officers work in partnership with PPI officers, attending PPI roll calls and carrying PPI radios. Their primary area of responsibility is assisting PPI officers with enforcement-type activities."
The contract extension passed unanimously despite objections from Handelman and Street Roots, whose director wrote a letter to the mayor and city commissioners the day before. Handelman was disappointed.
"The public should be paying for the police, and everybody should receive equal service," he said. "The implication that the PBA is not getting any better service than anybody else is ridiculous. If a downtown homeowner calls non-emergency and says, 'There's a drunk guy on my lawn,' they're going to have to wait until the end of a long list of calls to get any service. But if a downtown business owner calls [PBA's] Clean and Safe [program], then boom. One of these three cops is going to be there. Isn't that wrong? It's just wrong."
The PBA has lobbied consistently to make it illegal for homeless people to sit on the city's sidewalks, and pays $1.5 million per year for PPI to patrol Old Town and downtown's parks. The PBA and PPI have refused to respond publicly to any of the Mercury's questions about oversight, funding, or training of PPI officers, or on any perceived conflict of interest in the PBA's contractual relationship with the real police.