It’s not often that Portland’s police union and advocates for Portland’s homeless community agree.
But there’s an unavoidable similarity between the demands of the Portland Police Association (PPA)—underscored in a lengthy Facebook post penned Monday by PPA’s combustible president Daryl Turner—and the call to action of a Change.org petition being circulated by local proponents for affordable housing. Both groups agree that police officers shouldn’t be the first responders to calls regarding homeless individuals, and both agree that Mayor Ted Wheeler’s response to new data on homelessness-related arrests is misguided.
Both the PPA’s Facebook post and the online petition follow a jaw-dropping investigation published in the Oregonian on June 27. Reporters found that 52 percent of all Portland arrests in 2017 were of people who were experiencing homelessness. Only 3 percent of the city’s population fits that description.
This jarringly disproportionate finding sparked outrage in Portland’s homeless advocacy circles and civil rights organizations, prompting Wheeler to announce an investigation into the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to determine if officers are unfairly profiling Portland’s houseless population.
“The real question here is, ‘Is there some sort of profiling or implicit bias?’” Wheeler told the Oregonian last week. “From my perspective, that’s the crux of the situation.”
Is it, though? Are officers responsible for arresting a high number of homeless people, or is it the responsibility of Wheeler—who serves as Portland’s police commissioner—to reevaluate the number of crimes that a houseless person can be charged with?
“The mass arrests of people on the streets aren’t a reflection of the integrity of police officers,” says Israel Bayer, a longtime advocate for Portland’s houseless and the former executive director of Street Roots. “It’s about creating smart public policy that isn’t driven by neighborhood complaints.”
PPA’s Turner seems to agree. In his Facebook post, Turner writes he’s “incensed” that Wheeler is blaming systemic city issues on inferred officer bias. “It’s a recipe for failure to put the burden of the homelessness solution on the Police Bureau’s shoulders,” Turner writes.
Turner believes the problem can be solved with more PPB officers. That’s where the similarities between PPA’s demands and homeless advocates’ activism begin to disappear.
“When people call for more police, they’re really calling for more people to solve the problem, because the current people aren’t cutting it,” says Elliott Young, a Lewis & Clark history professor who helped organize the popular online petition that calls on the city to decriminalize homelessness.
The petition, which has gathered more than 2,000 signatures, asks Wheeler to slash police officer positions and use the funds to increase access to affordable housing, mental health care, and addiction services.
Wheeler isn’t necessarily opposed to that idea. In a May meeting with police accountability advocates, the mayor said that in cases of mental health crises, “having police officers be the safety net shouldn’t make anybody comfortable.” Wheeler didn’t specifically address Portland’s homeless population, but in his remarks, he showed genuine concern over fundamental flaws in PPB’s current mandate.
Wheeler added, “We have to completely change the paradigm around policing here in this community to be more reflective of the kinds of needs that are increasingly important.”
If he’s looking for a signal to start changing that paradigm, the combined outcry from the PPA and homeless advocates is it.