Doug Brown

"Portland Police Bureau should identify its role in responding to the City’s homeless crisis."

The title of the Independent Police Review's (IPR) latest policy review succinctly summarizes an issue that's consumed countless City Council meetings, community forums, and election cycles in Portland.

Despite declaring a "Housing State of Emergency" in 2015, the city hasn't developed any concrete guidelines for PPB officers on how to interact with houseless Portlanders, and it's showing. Instead of using new policing tools to break the cycle of misdemeanor arrests and warrant checks among the homeless population, the city's normalized frequent harassment of homeless people by its police force.

Last year, police data collected by the Oregonian found that more than half of all 2017 arrests by PPB were of homeless Portlanders.

It's that Oregonian report that inspired Mayor Ted Wheeler and PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw to ask the city's independent team of police investigators to double check the numbers, and conduct a thorough review of PPB's relationship with the city's homeless population.

The IPR report, released Wednesday, echoes the Oregonian's findings—it determined that around half of all PPB arrests from 2017 and 2018 were of people without a fixed street address. More than half of these arrests are due to a person's outstanding warrant for a misdemeanor.

But that's about all IPR can confirm.

"The Police Bureau is unable to effectively evaluate officers' interactions with people experiencing homelessness because it lacks relevant data," the report reads.

Due to gaping holes in PPB's data collection process, the city can't definitively say that Portland police officers disproportionally arrest houseless people. The IPR found that officers do not record a person's housing status when making an arrest, nor are they instructed to ask whether an individual is homeless. While officers do write down if a person doesn't provide a home address, this refusal might not always mean they're homeless.

"Sometimes a suspect might not want to tell officers where they live," the report notes.

PPB's inability to track this data could inadvertently protect officers who show bias toward individuals based on their housing status.

Of course, officers only collect this minimal data if they make an arrest. Police aren't required to record other encounters with homeless people—like asking someone to move off the sidewalk or referring them to a homeless shelter. Because of this, the IPR writes, "there is not way to track how many police encounters with people experiencing homelessness occur overall, and what percentage... lead to arrest."

The IPR report is only the latest example of how PPB's poor data collection standards make it impossible for the city to track potential discrimination among officers. In March 2018, a city audit of the Gang Enforcement Team (now called the Gun Violence Reduction Team) suggested PPB officers are racially profiling people they pull over for low-level traffic violations, operating under the assumption that Black drivers might be involved in a gang. Yet, the report was limited by PPB's failure to report the results of a traffic stop, data that would have shown whether the driver was, in fact, in a gang.

It's not just the absence of data that's kept PPB from improving its interactions with Portland's homeless population. The IPR investigation found that many officers aren't trained on how to appropriately address homeless people who may have committed a low-level crime.

"Officers are given discretion in how they enforce low priority offenses but are not given guidance on how this discretion should be applied as part of an overall strategy in addressing homelessness," IPR writes, noting several officers' frustration with rules that seem to contradict each other.

IPR recommends the PPB "seek direction" from the City Council to understand its role in the city's homeless crisis. It also suggests the bureau collect actual arrest data on people's housing status and develop consistent guidelines for officers who interact with homeless people.

In her response to the report, Chief Outlaw pledges to produce "reference materials" for officers regarding their interactions with houseless Portlanders in the next 90 days. Within 30 days, Outlaw writes, PPB will distribute a tip sheet for officers on how to accurately reflect a person's housing situation in an arrest report. Yet Outlaw maintains PPB isn't unfairly policing homeless people.

"Your report did not identify any actions by the Portland Police Bureau that criminalized homelessness," Outlaw writes.