Doug Brown

It's been nearly two years since Mayor Ted Wheeler tucked $1,159,293 into his annual budget to fund a first-of-its-kind position within the Portland Police Bureau.

The proposed "community services officer" role was essentially created to take the burden of responding to low-level crimes off sworn police officers. These new PPB employees would be non-sworn, meaning they wouldn't carry a gun, and would follow up on property crime, traffic accidents, and any other petty non-violent crimes.

As we noted in May, those 2017 budget dollars were never used, and instead carried over to 2018's budget package. The new promise from the mayor's office: the 12 new community service officer spots would be filled by January 2019.

Now, after months of union negotiations, that new position is finally headed to council for a final stamp of approval. City commissioners will vote on an amendment to the city's collective bargaining agreement with the Portland Police Association (PPA), PPB's union, that defines the new role on Wednesday.

The thinking behind this position, which was first mentioned in a 2016 PPA contract, has shifted over the years. Police reform advocates believe the role was initially created to emphasize community involvement—by serving as a unarmed first responder to people in mental health crises or a resource for houseless people.

But the new position, which has since been renamed "Public Safety Support Specialist" (PS3 for short), doesn't meet those perceived goals.

The amendment to the PPA contract explains that while PS3s will not carry a firearm, they will be armed with pepper spray and will receive PPB's use of force training. A note in the section detailing the PS3s' 200 hours of PPB training explains that an "additional possible topic" of training could be "Taser Orientation." suggesting that PS3s could eventually carry tasers. Editor's note: A spokesperson from the mayor's office has clarified that this would be training on how to avoid being tased, rather than learning how to use a taser.

The starting hourly pay for a PS3 will be $23.95. According to PPB Assistant Chief Chris Davis, PS3s will not need certification through the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST).

In September, the Mercury sat down with Davis, who was tasked with creating this brand-new position, to get a better idea of what need this new role will fill. From the beginning, Davis made it clear: PS3s are not a replacement for sworn officers, which Portland could still use more of.

"[Sworn] officers are up to their eyeballs in work that no one else can do," Davis said. "I think the PS3 program has great potential to supplement that work. But I have to manage expectations with this program. What it's not going to do is reduce the number of sworn officers that we have."

The 12 PS3s will be divvied up between PPB's three precincts, and will work closely with district-specific cops. Davis confirmed that PS3s will not need certification through the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST).

There are many low-level crimes that sworn officers don't need to be tied up in, Davis said. For instance: "If your car was broken into and something taken out of it but nobody saw who did it, we can have a PS3 go take that report."

PS3s could also collect and process surveillance video footage from a crime scene, collect found property that's been reported stolen, or respond to car crashes where no one was injured and no crime was committed. Often, Davis said, sworn officers are called out to direct traffic around the scene of a car crash or help drivers exchange insurance—work that keeps them from following more serious crimes.

According to the city budget office, the number of 911 calls that require police dispatch have increased 22 percent in the past five years. An increasing majority of those calls, however, are labeled “low and medium priority”—calls that could perhaps be easily handled by PS3 staff.

But PBB's steadily growing workload, reflected in the 911 call data, may make it difficult to calculate the impact these new staffers will have on PPB.

"One of the biggest metrics will be recording how many calls [PS3s] take," Davis said. "But it's entirely possible that we'll come back after a year and find out that we've used PS3s, a lot, but that the load on officers hasn't gone down... because the overall number of calls is going up and up and up."