Todd Saucier

It’s becoming harder and harder for Portland to attract—and retain—new police officers.

In a recent analysis of the police bureau’s finances by the City Budget Office (CBO), city economists say that the headline-grabbing problems plaguing the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) can all be traced back to this one issue.

As an example, the CBO points to the city’s recent surge in 911 calls. In the past five years, Portland’s 911 call volume has increased by more than 25 percent, while PPB’s number of sworn officers has remained the same. To meet the demand of responding to the increased calls (the vast majority of which, it should be noted, are made to complain about an “unwanted person” or “disturbance,” and not actual crimes in progress), Police Commissioner and Mayor Ted Wheeler passed a 2018-19 budget that included increasing the number of on-patrol PPB officers by 49.

But according to the CBO, growing the police force—while an easy way for the mayor to show that the city is doing something—shouldn’t be the city’s top priority. At least, CBO says, not until PPB gets better at both hiring new cops and retaining the officers it already has.

Before posting new officer job openings in July 2018, PPB had 17 job openings for officers. Now, the bureau has 75 open officer positions. Despite hiring 22 new officers since last July, the number of officers retiring has far outpaced the number of hires. By this summer, the city estimates PPB will see up to 50 more officers retire.

This means that, at the moment, the number of on-patrol officers who are available to respond to 911 calls has remained exactly the same as it was last year (around 350), as has officers’ average response time to “high-priority” 911 calls (8.6 minutes).

At this rate, the CBO estimates that the PPB will have a paltry 360 total officers on patrol by July 2022. Another way to put it: In four years, PPB will hire a net of 10 new officers. That’s hardly enough to make any meaningful improvements to 911 response times.

The city can’t adequately address the PPB’s staffing problems—which cause everything from slow emergency response times, to high overtime costs, to stressed-out cops—without fixing the bureau’s glaring recruitment and retention problems. But where to begin?

The CBO says the PPB’s glacial application process is, at least anecdotally, a significant reason that prospective officers aren’t joining PPB quickly enough. According to the CBO report, PPB applicants wait an average of 11 months to be hired after applying for an officer job. The PPB states that this time period—which has lengthened from an average of nine months in 2016—accounts for an extensive background check, psychological and physical evaluations, and other exams to weed out subpar applicants. (In Memphis, a city close in population size to Portland, this process takes an average of six months).

Even then, those who eventually get a job offer face over two years of training and probation before being able to respond to calls. But few prospective employees are able to wait that long: The CBO found that as many as 25 percent of PPB officers hired in the last three years left before finishing their 18-month probation period. The CBO notes that, in Portland, that number has historically been closer to 15 percent.

PPB is well aware of its hiring and retention problems, but doesn’t think its application process is entirely to blame. In the bureau’s latest budget ask, PPB points to another issue that’s complicating its recruitment: “The deterioration of public perceptions of the challenges of serving as a police officer.”

Portland isn’t alone in this issue—cities across the country are struggling to hire officers, and blaming the public's growing negative perception of police work, rather than their own officers’ conduct. Some cities have already shed requirements to attract more police recruits, such as no longer requiring a college education.

Portland hasn’t yet reached that point. But PPB has certainly sweetened the pot: In 2009, the entry-level salary for a PPB officer was $42,500. By 2014, it had risen to $47,000. Now, in the same span of five years, that entry-level salary has jumped to $64,400. Forty seven percent of PPB’s requested 2019-20 budget is earmarked for salaries, and in a recent interview with OPB, Wheeler noted that police salaries have become one of the largest burdens on the city’s budget.

This budget cycle, the PPB didn’t ask for any more new officers—but it did urge the city to increase the force by an additional 150 officers by 2023. The bureau didn’t explain how they planned to do that.