• illustration by Elizabeth Bisegna
Commissioner Steve Novick has been the loudest voice in city hall—really the only one—publicly questioning how much the city of Portland spends on its police bureau. This winter, he sent out a memo marking three potential targets for clawbacks: the bureau's mounted patrol, its Drugs and Vice Division, and its top-heavy command staff.

He's gotten attention, at varying degrees, for all three. The nonprofit Friends of the Mounted Patrol launched a PR blitz after Novick made inroads with his colleagues on the notion of ditching police horses. He brought Chief Mike Reese and Captain Mark Kruger to a city hall budget hearing and made them defend the drugs unit. And he and Commissioner Nick Fish sparred behind the scenes with the police bureau while preparing a citywide "span of control" report that quantified the millions the city might save if the cops got by with fewer captains and lieutenants.

That last effort left off with the cops promising to give Novick some additional details and rationales about their staffing, details other bureaus turned in before the report was finished, by April 1. They complied. Sort of. A large binder with position descriptions and organizational charts was dropped off in Novick's office earlier this month—although it was devoid of any explanations for why some of those supervisory positions had only three or fewer subordinates.

Novick, meanwhile, has done some digging on his own. He tracked down a bureau organizational chart from 1993, compared it to the bureau of today—and made some interesting findings. He shared them with me in an email.

Some historical data. In 1993, there were 8 captains, 953 sworn officers, and 1,189 total staff – and 52,801 Part 1 crimes. In 2013, there were 13 captains, 932 sworn officers, 1,199 total staff, and 32,054 Part 1 crimes. So we have had a 39.3% decline in major crimes, a 2.2% decline in sworn staff … and a 62.5% increase in the number of captains.

Three of the new captains result from adding a captain between the commander and the lieutenants in the precincts. In 1993, we had three precincts, and simply had a commander and lieutenants in the precincts. In the interim, we went through a period where we had five precincts. When we re-consolidated into three, a captain position was added in each precinct.

So let's recap: Crime is majorly down even though we've cut back on cops—with more of the cops we still have taking supervisory roles that move them off the streets and into the bureaucracy. Novick sees an interesting question emerging from that correlation—especially with so many other quality of life issues competing with the cops for scarce budget money.

Although our focus has been on the span of control issue, I do think it’s reasonable to ask the question: If we had known in 1993 that major crimes were going to decline by 39.3% over the next 20 years, would we have planned to reduce the number of sworn staff by only 2.2%, while accumulating a massive backlog of unmet needs in Parks and Housing… not to mention disaster preparedness?