Covering with Fewer Cops 

Mike Reese Turns to Science for Help with Police Staffing Woes

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A HARSH DOSE of fiscal reckoning appears nigh for the Portland Police Bureau—which is now facing, according to a new budget review, the prospect of widespread layoffs for the first time in almost 30 years.

But while concern and somber words over the bad news ruled a Portland City Council budget workshop on Monday, March 18, Police Chief Mike Reese also provided his own answer to the fretful question of how our cops might hold the line:

He's pitching Portland as the latest laboratory for a somewhat radical technique known as "hotspot" enforcement.

By ditching random patrols in favor of focusing on the few places that contribute an outsize amount of crime, it's a way of conceivably doing more with less. A preliminary analysis has found that 40 percent of the kinds of crimes a cop might stop just by standing by occur in less than four percent of Portland.

And for advocates and others who question whether police staffing levels already are too high at a time when serious crime is hitting historic lows, the idea is proving to be a powerful lure.

"Hotspot policing seems to be a way of using police officers more effectively, and it's one of the things that works," Commissioner Steve Novick, a police staffing skeptic, tells the Mercury.

Reese has long been at the vanguard of using data to bolster police work. But the prospect of a fundamental shift in tactics comes at a difficult time for the bureau. The final shape of federal reforms over its handling of the mentally ill remains uncertain. And high-profile discipline cases involving senior cops and officials have proven a nettlesome distraction.

Still, Reese, in an interview, says he hopes to get moving as soon as this June, after spending months huddling with academics and working with cops in other cities who have led similar experiments.

In a perfect world, Reese says, dispatch would send cops out for random, 15-minute stints at a defined list of hotspots where they'd either be asked to hang out or get out of their cars and press the flesh with business owners and neighbors. After 15 minutes they'd get on with the rest of their shifts.

"You can have a big impact on crime," he says, "with just a small time allotment."

Reese is drawing from studies in other cities that show a chilling effect on crime that can linger for hours after cops leave. In Sacramento—whose model Portland is largely borrowing—a three-month review in 2011 found a 25 percent drop in serious crimes at affected hotspots.

And studies in cities around the country show little displacement of crime to nearby street corners.

"The evidence isn't that crime is just pushed around the corner," says Cody Telep, a research assistant at George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy.

Telep, invited by Commissioner Novick, was on hand to help Reese present the idea to city council this week.

"In fact," Telep told city commissioners, "there's often a decrease nearby."

Reese disputes the characterization that Portland's experiment comes as an antidote to budget cuts.

The police chief's walking a fine line—pleading for as much money as he can from city council while also having to prepare for the worst. He pointed to another, ongoing attempt at hotspot policing, a bid to reduce calls at the occasionally troubled intersection of North Albina and Killingsworth.

"They're separate things," he insisted of the budget cuts and the hotspot shift.

Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, whose ranks would diminish amid layoffs, also strongly sought to refute any suggestion that cutbacks wouldn't be terrible for the police bureau.

"Where do you cut? Where's the fat?" he says. "You're cutting into muscle."

But others say they hope Portland can talk about whether patrol staffing can safely drop.

"There's reason to be hopeful about being able to deploy our resources better," Novick says.

Sacramento Police Sergeant Renee Mitchell, who's been in regular contact with Reese's team, says her city's project was a clear attempt to help manage looming layoffs.

And though it worked, she says, her bosses pulled the plug. The shift was too much at a time of low morale and push back from cops.

"We're wary, we don't like change, we're cynical," she says.

There's also going to be resistance from community groups who see hotspot work as code for racial profiling. Advocates here already note that the Albina and Killingsworth project has disproportionately affected black Portlanders.

For Reese to succeed, Mitchell says, he'll need "100 percent support" from the city council he answers to and the cops he leads. His boss, Mayor Charlie Hales, has so far signaled his backing.

"This is a phenomenal, monumental leadership task," Mitchell says. "You get one shot if you roll this thing out wrong."

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