There's a new type of officer coming to Portland.
Well, technically, it's a new type of "specialist": the "Public Safety Support Specialist" (PS3 for short), an unarmed, non-sworn employee of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). In an afternoon council meeting, Portland City Commissioners unanimously approved the creation of this brand-new position within the PPB.
PS3s will not be able to make arrests, detain people, or drive a PPB patrol car. Based on the contract, these new PPB employees will follow up on property crime, traffic accidents, and any other low-level, non-violent crimes. They’ll wear green polos with a PPB emblem and tan khakis—and will carry pepper spray.
The idea of adding unarmed officers to PPB’s arsenal isn’t necessarily new. The plan for this new position has been in the works since 2016, when then-Mayor Charlie Hales signed off on a controversial new contract with Portland Police Association (PPA), Portland's police union. And Mayor Ted Wheeler set aside funding for these 12 positions into his 2017-2018 budget.
Some police reform advocates, however, said they felt blindsided by today’s decision.
“It is really shameful that there was no real lead up and no community discussion before today,” said Dan Handelman with Portland Copwatch. He noted that the previous city council session held on this contract update—in June—did not allow for public comment.
“If this is about community engaged policing, well, the community wasn’t engaged in defining what they’re going to do,” Handelman said.
Wheeler said that speeches he gave and presentations he made while running for office in 2016 were a form of community engagement.
He also argued that the PS3 role was never meant to solely focus on community outreach, adding that community engagement is a job requirement for all PPB officers.
Yet, in defining the new role, Wheeler said, “PS3s will generally serve as ambassadors of goodwill for the community.”
The meeting ended with some lingering confusion around whether or not a PS3 will spend more time engaging with the community than other sworn officers.
Other community concerns were more clearly addressed. Nicole Grant, a senior policy advisor to Wheeler, dismissed the perception that the position was created to fill a mental health first responder role, an idea held by some community members.
“My understanding that this was part of the bureaus’ community policing effort,” said Grant, who also worked for the Hales administration when the idea was first being fleshed out.
“We did not want desk clerks, we didn't want paper pushers,” she said. “There really was a desire to have them out in the community serving as first responders in non-emergency situations.”
Grant also rebuked an idea perpetuated by PPA President Daryl Turner in an interview with Willamette Week. According to WW, Turner suggested PS3s would staff the front desk at PPB precincts and wait for tow trucks to remove a car blocking the road after a collision.
“I don’t understand Daryl Turner’s position. That quote caught us by surprise and is factually untrue,” said Grant. “Nowhere in this document does it say they’ll be engaging in front desk [work], or administrative [work], or clerk work. I don’t understand where that language came from.”
Grant said that when the city’s negotiations with the PPA over this contract amendment concluded in 2017, all parties “were absolutely on the same page.”
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, the one member of council who signaled her opposition to the amendment, asked PPB to present a report to city council in a year to analyze the success (or failure) of the PS3 program. She also acknowledged public comments about this decision being rushed without community input.
“This position was originally called for by the community,” Eudaly said, referencing the community’s push to include unarmed police in the 2016 PPA contract. “This is the result of hard fought advocacy by the community.”
However, Eudaly echoed comments made earlier by Commissioner Nick Fish about the city’s failure to adequately informing the public about these council decisions before they go to a vote. It’s a concern Wheeler’s raised in past council sessions.
“I want us to take the lion’s share of the responsibility for [the public’s] confusion. We are not doing a good enough job informing the public, let alone engaging them and meaningfully involving them. I think it’s crystal clear that… we can never do too much.”