Jeff Drew

In the first week of December, Portland City Council unanimously voted to hire a dozen police officers who don’t carry guns.

Called “Public Safety Support Specialists” (PS3s for short), this new type of cop will only respond to reports of low-level, non-emergency crimes—the type that have most contributed to Portland’s steady uptick in 911 calls. Armed only with pepper spray, PS3s will write up reports about stolen property, help people exchange insurance information after car crashes, attend neighborhood meetings, assist in searching for missing persons, block off roadways when needed, and help inventory evidence and found property—among other tasks that sworn officers often handle. Dressed in green polos emblazoned with a PPB logo and tan khakis, the PS3s will be divvied up between Portland’s three precincts. The city is expected to start hiring PS3s in January.

Most agree that PS3s have the potential to improve policing in Portland. But in a city with a shaky history of police accountability, any change at the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) comes with a skeptical pause from the public.

“Where are the people of Portland represented in today’s decision?” asked a man identified as John who testified at city council before the vote. “[We’ve] said we want police reform with transparency and accountability to the community. This proposal provides neither.”

City commissioners agree that the city’s clunky unveiling of the stalled program didn’t help gain public trust.

The idea of a PS3 role was first mentioned in 2016, during the city’s tumultuous contract negotiations with the PPB’s union, the Portland Police Association (PPA). That contract promised a future chat between both the city and the PPA regarding “the feasibility” of a new unsworn position, which was then called a “Community Service Officer.” As with most PPA meetings, those conversations took place behind closed doors.

Aside from Mayor Ted Wheeler quietly tucking $1,159,293 into the city’s 2017-2018 budget to fund a community service officer program (the majority of which still sits untouched), the concept has largely remained off the public’s radar. Then, on Friday, November 30, the city announced it would be voting to approve 12 new police jobs the following week.

Even regular police activists seemed caught off-guard by the vote to approve the PS3 program.

“It is really shameful that there was no real lead up and no community discussion before today,” said Portland Copwatch’s Dan Handelman, testifying before council before the vote. “If this is about community-engaged policing, well, the community wasn’t engaged in defining what they’re going to do.”

Others raised concerns that the job doesn’t focus on improving PPB’s response to mental health crises, an issue the bureau is still struggling with six years after being ordered to improve by the US Department of Justice.

But that never was the point of the PS3 program, according to Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who sat on council when the position was first proposed. Fritz said the role was not created to serve as a liaison between police officers and the homeless or the mentally ill.

Wheeler reiterated the limits of the role before he called for the council vote.

“This is not a community engagement or a community policing unit, per se,” Wheeler said. “Community policing is a policy that has to be embodied throughout the organization.”

The public’s hazy understanding of the PS3 program is expected, based on the way Wheeler’s discussed it in the past. In his 2017-2018 budget, Wheeler noted the program would be “focused on engaging directly with the community.” And in a public list of his 2017 accomplishments, Wheeler said he had “developed a new Community Service Officer program... to enhance community policing efforts.”

In the official job description job description for PS3s, that community-focused mission has been reduced to “assisting sworn officers with community engagement.”

More concretely, the PS3 positions do appear to address a problem that both police officers and members of the public have been urging the city to address: Dangerously slow response times to 911 calls.

According to the city budget office, 911 call volume has increased by more than 22 percent in the past five years, with a specific uptick in “low and medium priority” crimes. But the number of police officers hasn’t grown, causing an imbalance that earlier this year led Wheeler to expand the force by 58 additional sworn officers. That decision sparked outcry from community members who called for reform before making any new hires and grumbles from PPB and union officials who believed 58 new officers still weren’t enough to help an overburdened bureau.

Ideally, the PS3s will address both of these concerns by allowing unarmed non-officers to share sworn officers’ heavy workload.

“There’s quite a lot of work that’s done by sworn members that does not require police authority,” said Wheeler before the council vote. “To hire PS3s means... we’ll give our officers time to do more than just run from call to call to call. It’s a better allocation of our scarce resources.”

It’s certainly going to be cheaper than hiring more sworn officers. According to the job description, PS3s will start with an annual salary of around $49,800. (Entry-level salaries for sworn police officers start at $64,400.) And instead of plodding through sworn officers’ mandatory 400 hours of state law enforcement training in Salem, PS3s will only need 200 hours of local training.

PPB Assistant Chief Chris Davis, who will oversee this program, says the job would be a good fit for recent college grads interested in law enforcement, or retired officers who want to stay involved. It won’t be easy for PS3s to climb the ladder into a sworn position, however. The PS3 contract notes that any hours accrued by PS3 officers won’t roll over to a sworn position and despite their history with the bureau, every PS3 will enter a sworn position with entry-level pay.

Portland joins dozens of other jurisdictions across the country that have introduced this type of low-level policing position into the traditional law-enforcement system. The roles vary slightly by city—in Seattle, community service officers mediate disputes between neighbors and investigate child abuse, while those in Beaverton focus on parking enforcement. A Stanford University study of community service officers in California found that 94 percent of them did administrative and clerical work. It’s not clear what Portland’s PS3s will spend most of their time doing—yet.

Support Mercury News Coverage

The city has requested a review of the PS3 program in one year. Davis s ays the best way to measure the efficacy of the program will be reviewing which officers are responding to calls. If sworn officers end up taking fewer calls for low-level crimes than they are now, that will be an easy sign of success, says Davis. But it probably won’t be that simple.

“I have to manage expectations with this program,” Davis says. “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.”

SLAY Film Fest
In person at the Clinton St. Theater 10/29 & 10/30