A group of prominent homeless and civil rights advocates is meeting this week with city commissioners and the mayor's office to discuss a new list of oversight suggestions for the controversial downtown private security firm, Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI).
PPI contracts with the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) to carry out "order maintenance" in the downtown core. Its officers dress like cops, and many carry guns ["Trust Me, I'm a Rent-a-Cop, Feature, May 3]. They have issued more than 1,400 park exclusions through a contract with the city's parks bureau since last November, but the firm has drawn repeated criticism for its lack of transparent oversight.
As a private business, PPI has repeatedly refused comment on its activities, and has insisted on investigating its own complaints—often to the frustration of those complaining ["Rent-a-Cops Run Wild!" News, Sept 13].
Last week, in a letter to city commissioners and the mayor's office, representatives from the Oregon Law Center, the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), Street Roots, and Sisters of the Road called for sweeping changes in the way PPI does business.
They want five changes: a straightforward, unbiased complaints and grievance process that includes the City of Portland; public openness about training and standard operating procedures; uniforms for PPI officers that clearly differentiate them from the cops; removal of PPI officers' guns, no powers to detain people or search personal property; and lastly, a revisiting of PPI's ability to issue park exclusions.
So far, the group of advocates has set up meetings this week with all of the city commissioners, apart from Sam Adams—whose office is understood to be interested in the recommendations, but did not have an official position on them by press time.
"The recommendations warrant discussion and possible consideration," says Jamaal Folsom, a staffer in Commissioner Erik Sten's office.
"To me, the bigger issue is: Are they interacting appropriately with the public?" says City Commissioner Randy Leonard. "I want to hear [PPI's] side, and go from there."
The mayor's office is interested, too, and says it has been working with Street Roots, the PBA, and PPI for several months to make the complaints process more streamlined and transparent. For example, it announced PPI officers would give out business cards to complainants back in August, and that PPI would begin providing quarterly reports to the city listing complaints and how they are resolved.
"We're amenable to sitting down with the committee and hearing what they have to say," says the mayor's spokesman, John Doussard. Although he adds that "it doesn't mean we are dissatisfied in any way with the work PPI has been doing."
The only commissioner who's not playing ball at the moment is Dan Saltzman. He won't discuss changes in the parks bureau's contract with PPI (which goes through the PBA) until it expires in 2010, and says he is "satisfied" with the service PPI is providing. Saltzman wouldn't comment further on the group's oversight recommendations.
"I think Portland as a city values accountability and transparency in matters of public concern," says Adam Arms, a legal advisor for WRAP, one of the signatories on the oversight document. "Private policing is a serious, serious concern and there has been a serious lack of oversight. It would be unfortunate if it took somebody being killed or shot before something happened, and I think that's what this group is saying—that there are dangers involved and we need to get things back on track."
Arms says he believes people's civil rights are regularly being violated by PPI officers who tell them to move off the sidewalk, and says he has heard from the homeless community about people being threatened by PPI officers if they refuse to comply with directions.
"We feel this is the right thing to do," adds Patrick Nolen of Sisters of the Road, whose name is also on the document.
The PBA did not mention removing officers' guns in a statement to the Mercury, or changing their uniforms—but it does seem more amenable to engaging in a discussion on the topic than it has in the past.
"The Clean and Safe program already incorporates most of these recommendations," says Mike Kuykendall, vice president of downtown services for the PBA. "And we stand by our extensive training and complaints investigation process. For example, we currently provide the city quarterly reports, enabling city council to monitor our complaint process, and our training also includes homeless advocates.
"Our officers are mostly retired police officers with strong community relations skills," he continues. "Since 1988, these officers have made downtown Portland safer for everyone, including the homeless population."
PPI itself did not respond to a request through the PBA for comment by press time.