Portland City Council responded to an alarming uptick in local gun violence by unanimously passing a $6 million emergency budget package on Wednesday.
The proposal finances grants for community-based organizations that work directly with Portlanders impacted by gun violence, significantly expands Portland's park ranger program, and funds crime data collection and analysis. It does not include any additional funding for the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), a solution initially suggested by Mayor Ted Wheeler in March.
"This proposal goes beyond just enforcement to invest in upstream solutions and tackle disparities faced by many of the impacted communities at their roots, and replacing and rebuilding it with a system that supports them," said Commissioner Carmen Rubio during the Wednesday council meeting.
The proposal does, however, coincide with a decision from the mayor's office—one that has city commissioners' approval—to reassign current PPB officers to work more directly on gun violence prevention. This reshuffling, outlined in a PPB memo sent to Wheeler's office, will informally reinstate the 12-person patrol team previously known as the Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT), which was disbanded in June 2020 through City Council's budget vote. The GVRT was dissolved after a city audit found its officers were disproportionately surveilling Black men.
Unlike the GVRT, the police bureau's new "Focused Intervention Team" will have a new citizen oversight arm and will have a mandate to collect more thorough demographic data. Commissioners didn't address this new team's creation during the hours-long council discussion.
"The days of arbitrary, heavy-handed violence prevention tactics, like stop and frisk, are over," Wheeler said Wednesday. "We will create a new community-centered police partnership to make Portland safer from gun violence."
The vote follows a series of hasty, closed-door negotiations between city commissioners—discussions that were accelerated by pressure from community groups, Portland police officers, and the sheer pace of fatal shootings in recent months.
According to PPB, guns have been used in 18 of the city's 25 homicides since January 1. Portland saw only three homicides total over the same period of time in 2020.
In early March, Wheeler came out in support of a gun violence reduction plan introduced by PPB and the Interfaith Peace and Action Collaborative (IPAC), a group composed of religious leaders. The plan proposed investing $1.7 million into the police bureau to restart the GVRT under a different name and create a new community board to oversee its work.
This plan, and the mayor's support, came as a surprise to the rest of City Council who had expected to work alongside Wheeler in developing a unified response to the surge in gun violence.
Instead of immediately backing the new proposal, Rubio and commissioners Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps came together to pitch a counter-offer—one that avoided new investments in the PPB. It gained the immediate support of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who led the council's decision to divest in the GVRT last summer.
Wednesday's decision reflects both Wheeler's and his fellow commissioners' interests.
The plan puts $4.1 million towards new and expanded grants to support organizations and non-profits that work with communities impacted by gun violence, a decision that reflects feedback that commissioners have collected from the public—both directly and through the past year of racial justice protests. The proposal sets aside $122,160 to pay a California-based criminal justice organization to independently collect and analyze gun violence data in Portland. It also puts the city's Community Safety Director (a brand-new position filled by former Portland Fire Chief Mike Meyers) in charge of creating a more long-term, community-informed response to gun violence across Portland. Meyers will receive $200,000 through the new budget package to hire two new crime data analysts to inform that work.
The package sets an additional $120,000 aside to hire an analyst that will support the community group that will oversee the PPB's new Focused Intervention Team (FIT).
It's not yet clear when that group, or the FIT, will actually be created.
In a press conference following the Wednesday council meeting, PPB Chief Chuck Lovell said it was going to be difficult to find 12 officers to spare for this new position. The bureau currently has 563 officers on staff with 98 officer vacancies.
"I'm not 100 percent sure yet where those officers will come from," said Lovell. "We’re already so lean."
Lovell did say some officers may understandably be hesitant to join a team that's received such public attention and opposition.
"We’ve had different efforts to combat [gun violence] before that’s been met with scrutiny," he said, referring to the GVRT. "A lot of people did a lot good work... got guns off the street, had good relationship with people... and their work was criticized and essentially went away. I think people remember that and wonder, 'What would happen to me and my career if that happened again?'"
The proposal also funnels $1.4 million to double the number of park rangers employed by Portland Parks and Recreation (PPR) to 48. While these rangers won't be expected to replace police officers, their proliferation across Portland parks is meant to strengthen oversight in public spaces where violent confrontations have taken place in the past.
Vicente Harrison, who serves as PPR's security and emergency manager, said Wednesday that park rangers are trained in deescalation and can settle problems that crop up on park property before needed officer intervention. However, Harrison stressed, rangers regularly work with PPB officers when situations require a more serious response. With the new investment, he said, park rangers will be able to "expand and enhance" their current partnership with police.
The total budget package, which comes in at $5.9 million, will come from general fund dollars leftover in the city's budget for fiscal year 2020-21, which ends on June 30. It's expected City Council will allocate dollars from the next year's budget cycle to support this emergency solution, but those conversations are still underway. Wheeler will present his draft budget for the fiscal year 2021-22 on April 29.
Because of the last-minute nature of this proposal, the council discussion only included feedback from members of the public who received an invitation from city commissioners to speak. All of the invited testimony was, unsurprisingly, in favor of the plan. The general public was not allowed to give feedback on the rushed plan before commissioners voted on its passage.
All who testified today, including city commissioners, noted that this plan should serve as the beginning of an intensive process to reframe the city's response to gun violence.
"I see today as a groundbreaking for a true community safety system," said Ryan. "With this ordinance we are building the foundation, and from here, building from the ground up. It's no secret this body respects a wide array of perspectives on the issue. Finding a unified path wasn't easy, but it will always yield the best results for this city."
In a call with the Mercury after the vote, Mapps echoed his colleague.
"The fact you can have the Mayor and Jo Ann Hardesty on board with the same police accountability plan," Mapps said. "That says something about what we've achieved as a council."
Mapps said he's looking forward to digging into the work the Wednesday vote laid out, especially when it comes to "reimagining" the role police play in community safety—a promise made by council when GVRT was disbanded last year. He hopes clear communication and transparency with the public will drive that work.
"I've always said the best medicine is sunlight," said Mapps. "We have to address the years and years of distrust between the public and police, and at the same time, we need to recognize that police play a role here. This proposal does a good job and addressing both."