The police reform promises touted by Mayor Ted Wheeler as integral to creating—and passing—the city's annual budget in June have taken the backseat in his latest budget adjustments.
On Tuesday, Portland City Council met to kick off the annual fall budget monitoring process (or "Fall BMP"), a time for commissioners to review and make adjustments to the current year's budget. Many members of the public—and some city commissioners—saw this process as an opportunity to seek further cuts to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and expand alternative first response programs and support systems.
Yet during the meeting, Wheeler instead made recommendations to pull funding for a burgeoning homeless emergency response program and dodged making any further cuts to PPB. The following conversation played out like a smaller version of June's budget discussion—with Wheeler resisting massive changes to the police budget, and commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty pushing for a larger overhaul.
The meeting set the stage for next week's Fall BMP hearing and council vote.
In June, City Council passed a PPB budget that was smaller than previous years' amounts, a reflection of the public's call to divest in policing. In the process, commissioners moved $4.8 million of former PPB dollars towards Portland Street Response, a pilot program meant to decrease police interactions with homeless people by sending an emergency medical technician and mental health worker to 911 calls related to homelessness, non-violent mental health crises, and other social service needs. Unlike many budgets for city programs, the $4.8 million was designated to be an ongoing, annual allocation.
Wheeler has often pointed to this significant investment as an example of how he intends on shifting the city's public safety response away from the kind of policing that's sparked protests across Portland this year. It's frequently mentioned in Wheeler's campaign interviews about his run for reelection.
On Tuesday, Wheeler proposed making a one-time $2.1 million cut from the street response's current budget. He suggested redistributing the funds to keep outdoor, city-run homeless camps—created in response to COVID-19—operating until the end of the year. The money would also go towards maintaining 100 porta-potties dispersed around the city for houseless residents.
That money was reshuffled because, according to Portland Street Response, these funds were not going to be used before July—the end of the fiscal year. Rather than saving them to help fund the street response next year, Wheeler chose to redirect them for other purposes.
"The option is to either put it into a reserve account or send these dollars out the door where they can do good right now," said Wheeler.
This came as a surprise to Hardesty, who oversees the street response program.
"I'm really appalled that the mayor is defunding Portland Street Response," said Hardesty. "I would love to have a conversation about why we're defunding what the community is demanding."
The street response pilot program, designed to focus resources solely on Portland's Lents neighborhood, has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If the program is successful, City Council intends on expanding it throughout the city, which would require a massive investment. On Tuesday, Hardesty argued that the proposed cuts to the street response program would slow its future expansion—both in Lents and across the city.
"My concern about reducing the resources is, what if we decide we must be 24-hours a day, seven days a week in the Lents neighborhood?" Hardesty said. "That means we'll have to double the staff, and we'd have to [buy] another vehicle."
Hardesty and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly also questioned Wheeler's plan to put $271,0000 into the Office of Violence Prevention (OVP) in a response to a recent increase in gun violence. Wheeler has said the investment could replace the critical community engagement role originally held by the Gun Violence Reduction Program—a program council voted to defund in June for having a discriminatory track record. While both Hardesty and Eudaly said they're interested in reducing gun violence, they weren't sold by the opaque replacement plan.
"I need to know more about what the [OVP] programs are, and if we are really taking a holistic view of violence prevention," said Eudaly. "We haven’t had a recent conversation about our approach to violence prevention and reduction, and I don’t know if we’re engaging in best practices."
In a memo set to city commissioners before the Tuesday meeting, Hardesty suggested funding social services and job opportunities—programs proven to deter gun violence—instead of OVP. She also made a sweeping call for an $18 million reduction in PPB's current budget.
The proposal is a combination of several cuts, including a reduction to the city's budget for "military like supplies and munitions," an elimination of overtime pay for secondary employment, and the reduction of 42 full-time positions (currently vacant due to retirements).
Hardesty also suggested defunding two PPB divisions that respond to protests: the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) and Rapid Response Team (RRT). Together, those cuts would amount to a $1.2 million reduction the the PPB budget.
"To the extent that PPB needs to improve upon its procedural justice in order to reclaim some semblance of legitimacy with our community," Hardesty's memo reads, "...We must defund these groups and change the ways in which PPB interacts with the public."
Wheeler's proposed budget adjustment doesn't mention any reduction in police services. It's unlikely that will change.
At an October 12 press conference, Wheeler said PPB probably needed more funding for training and responding to 911 calls in a timely manner, instead of less.
"Any further reductions [of the PPB budget] are going to have to meet a very high bar, from my perspective," said Wheeler. "It's going to have to be clear that the reductions are needed, wanted, or appropriate given the real public safety needs in that community."
Hardesty ended Tuesday's meeting with a clear response to the mayor's proposed budget adjustments.
"It is vital that we, as the leadership of the City of Portland, don’t miss any opportunity to live our values," she said. "People are demanding that we be leaders. We’re in crisis. It requires us to collectively be bold and be visionary and listen to the tens of thousands of people that we have been hearing from in the past months. I don’t believe this [budget] will go far enough."