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MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND

Hall Monitor is a column on issues related to Portland City Hall and its influence on the community it serves.

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In City Hall discussions about the city’s budget (which, in Portland, seems to occur every few months), there is one factor that tends to steer the conversation: data. Bureau programs often win funding if they’re able to provide data on their program’s success—and lose it if they can’t. For an example, look no further than the three commissioners’ decision not to fully fund the Portland Street Response in May of this year or Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s initial pitch to disband the police bureau’s gun prevention team in 2019.

There are jokes among lobbyists that certain commissioners won’t even consider a new program unless a proposal includes a graph. (As one lobbyist explained to me: “It doesn’t matter what the data is, just as long as it’s data!”).

There’s no place that data is more powerful to shape funding outcomes than within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). During this month’s budget talks, numbers have fueled commissioners’ debates around police funding—whether it’s the 127 currently vacant officer positions or the city surpassing a historic 1,000 shootings in 2021. While not part of the current budget package, Mayor Ted Wheeler has recently set a goal to expand PPB by 200 officers and 100 unarmed employees in three years—a plan meant to address the city’s rising homicide rate and slow 911 response times.

Last week, another dataset emerged to help contextualize Wheeler’s proposal. The data, which came directly from PPB’s own records and was crunched by a group of independent analysts, found there is little correlation between the size of PPB’s staff and Portland’s crime rate. The researchers compared the city’s monthly crime rate to the monthly number of employees within PPB over the past five years, and found no significant decrease in crime when PPB had more people on its payroll. Once published, these findings were eagerly used to stoke arguments against hiring more officers, and understandably so.

But this data alone may paint an incomplete picture at what truly influences Portland’s crime rate. Criminologists and policing experts say this standalone data isn’t an accurate way to measure police success.

“These types of studies are really easy to implement, but they’re too simplistic of a model of a very complex issue,” says Brian Renauer, director of the Criminal Justice Policy Research Institute at Portland State University (PSU).

Renauer says that tallying up PPB staff as a whole, instead of just focusing on the number of officers assigned to patrol on a given month, limits the analysis. He also sees investments in strategies, instead of people, as a more impactful way to measure the success of a police department. Those strategies could include directing more police to patrol a part of town that’s seen a high rate of violent crime or the city’s latest attempt at a gun violence prevention unit.

“Research has shown when you take on strategies like that, it can have a positive impact,” said Renauer.

And that work doesn’t necessarily require hiring hundreds of new cops.

“You can have a larger police bureau that is engaging in things that don't impact crime or techniques that the community disagrees with,” said Renauer. “ If we’re going to invest in police, let’s do it with an understanding of the strategies we’d like to have in mind. The city needs to identify those, and have evidence to back them up. We need to ask, ‘What are they doing and why?’”

Renauer says there’s no conclusive research he’s seen that’s connected a decrease in crime with an increase in cops—or vice versa. National studies have shown that crime rate can be impacted by investments in housing, green spaces, community organizations, and job creation. These are the kinds of investments Brian Kauffman says Portland should be considering if it wants to reduce crime rates. Kauffman, who serves as the director of the Western Community Policing Institute at Western Oregon University, has studied the impact that community-informed policing has had on towns of all sizes.

“I don’t see how you could answer the crime problem with the number of officers,” says Kauffman.

Instead of focusing so narrowly on the size of a police department, Kauffman urges cities to prioritize community input.

“Police departments are struggling with trying to convince their communities that these numbers equate to lower crime rates, when the community needs to have an active part in developing those strategies and working through those numbers,” says Kauffman. “That’s ultimately going to be the driving force.”

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The public has made this clear in Portland. The majority of testimony from more than one hundred members of the public during last week’s budget hearing focused on the role that police should—or shouldn’t—be playing in Portland.

This afternoon, Portland City Council won’t be voting to hire hundreds of new police. However, it will likely pass a budget package that directs $300,000 to hire a consultant to analyze PPB’s current staffing levels and recommend a 5-year staffing plan for the police department.

As council maps out a longer-term staffing plan for its police force, it’s both important to point to the data showing the disconnect between staff and crime rates and to encourage city leaders to let the community inform these weighty decisions. Perhaps most importantly, Portlanders need to hear why city leaders believe a larger police force will make the city safer.