Illustration by Timothy Tang

POLICE CHIEF Mike Reese wasn't happy when it came time for two city commissioners to wrap up a study calling for deep cuts to the police command staff—part of a wonkish effort to true up Portland's supervisor/employee ratios and potentially save up to $2.5 million.

The controversial report, first posted by the Mercury on March 5, found more than 33 police supervisors with three or fewer underlings. And it also gave the bureau a still-pending April 1 deadline to better justify those arrangements—something other bureaus had already done.

Worse, it took a nudge from the police commissioner, Mayor Charlie Hales, for the bureau to cooperate even as much as it did.

"We got to a point where we were supposed to have issued the report a long time ago," says Commissioner Steve Novick, who presided over the report along with Commissioner Nick Fish. "We concluded we couldn't wait any longer."

But in a memo delivered to Novick and Fish this month, Reese refused to take his lumps. And in the process, the chief revealed some of the deep political undertones—tension between the council and mayor's office, and also between the council and police bureau—silently throbbing under what was supposed to be a bloodless budget exercise.

Following through with the report's harshest recommendation—eliminating 23 command-level positions and reassigning six others—would "severely impact accountability and oversight of bureau operations." It would also run, Reese wrote, "directly counter" to a reform deal in place between the cops and the US Department of Justice.

Reese harrumphed, instead, that the bureau should be allowed to finish its own internal staffing study, which he optimistically suggested would be completed by the end of 2014.

The police chief's chilly reaction wasn't entirely unforeseen—not after a year that's seen an unusual strain in the bureau's relationship with city hall.

The bureau, for the first time in memory, wasn't spared steep budget cuts last year. The drumbeat of headlines over federal reform has sapped morale. Hales' office is in the midst of a bid to decertify the union that represents the bureau's command staff.

And commissioners, especially Novick, have been willing to question the bureau on policy and spending. Novick has been famously loud about cutting command positions and other specialty squads, like the bureau's vice unit and cherished mounted patrol. Having Fish along on this particular effort, however, suggests that this is more than another shout through Novick's bullhorn.

"It may be that they're feeling picked on," Novick says. "But they went through the same process everyone else did. They just provided a different level of information."

The vigor and tone of Reese's response dropped jaws in city hall all the same. Most curious was that it seemed to be tacitly endorsed by Hales' office. Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, personally sent out Reese's statement, alongside comments that thanked the chief for his thoughtful response.

"Obviously, more debate is called for in regard to the Portland Police Bureau and other bureaus as well," the mayor's office said.

City sources say they were especially troubled by inconsistent messages from within the mayor's office and chalked the statement up to another instance of that pattern playing out. Some of the sensitivity involved the timing of Hales' efforts to break up the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association (PPCOA).

Messages left with the PPCOA's president, Captain Bryan Parman, were not returned as of press time.

Novick wouldn't comment on Hales' remarks. But he did confirm meeting personally with Hales "a couple of weeks ago" and telling him that the report was going to be harsh. He also confirmed that Hales' office, at one point, offered a "cosmetic" wording change meant to keep the cops' feelings from growing even more tender.

"The mayor said he understood we needed to finish the process," Novick says. "He did not ask us not to do it. He understood what the report was going to say and he didn't object."

Haynes, when asked to comment, said he didn't immediately know whether the final report reflected Hales' input or not.

"He was pleased the two commissioners took on this issue," Haynes says. "As for actual details, that's going to head into the annual budget dance."

The report's examination of the city's workforce, politics aside, raises several interesting questions. It turned up dozens of "bosses"—mostly in the police bureau, but also in the city's sewer and water utilities—who only boss around three or fewer employees. And, in some cases, one or none.

As part of this examination, the city is looking at how it defines its job titles and their responsibilities. In some cases, bureaus have given supervisor status to valued employees as a way of bumping pay and keeping them from fleeing to other cities or the private sector.

Novick's still hoping the cops pony up the detailed information he and Fish have called for—sending a letter to Reese, obtained by the Mercury, making his wishes very clear. He's still puzzled, for example, why precinct commanders need a captain between themselves and the lieutenants they oversee. Or why both a captain and a lieutenant run certain specialty units.

"To the extent that they have lieutenants and captains who clearly are not supervisors," he said, "we need to change the classifications." 

Meanwhile, no one's holding their breath about the bureau's promise of an independent staffing review. The last time the bureau did something similar—contemplating a major shakeup in patrol shifts in 2011, also to save money—it went nowhere. How come?

Because, according to the Oregonian, Reese thought it would hurt "morale."