Portland City Council has approved a new pilot program created to address the growing number of low-level 911 calls that don't involve criminal activity.
The trial run for this new program, called Portland Street Response, will consist of two staff members—one, an emergency medical responder, the other, a crisis worker—and be limited to the Lents neighborhood. The duo will be dispatched by Portland 911 operators to respond to calls that don't require a police officer, like a non-violent mental health crisis, a report of someone camping on private property, or calls from people who need help accessing social services.
"It's a compassionate, and I believe better, way to respond to incidents involving the city's homeless and those experiencing mental health crises in our community," said Mayor Ted Wheeler, introducing the program at a Thursday afternoon council session.
Portland Street Response is a joint effort by Portland Fire and Rescue (PFR), Portland Police Bureau (PPB), Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), and the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC), with outside support from Street Roots and Portland State University. The pilot program, backed by $500,000 in one-time funding from the city budget, is slated to begin in spring of 2020.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who Wheeler tasked with drafting the pilot plan, first unveiled the recommended plan on November 15. But Thursday's council meeting gave bureau staff an opportunity to share a few more details about the new program.
According to fire bureau analyst Robyn Burek, the group chose Lents as its trial neighborhood because of a well-documented need. In the past five years, Burek explained, the City of Portland has seen the total number of fire bureau calls increase by 11 percent. In Lents, however, those calls have grown by 20 percent.
"Lents is the perfect place to roll this out," Hardesty added, "because it has minimal community resources."
Lents is also home to a fringe neighborhood group called Lents Neighborhood Livability Association, which has been accused of routinely harassing the homeless and poking fun at people in mental health crises by posting their photos online.
While the intention of the final program is to run 24/7, Fire Chief Sarah Boone explained that the two-person pilot version will only run on weekdays from 10 am to 6 pm. Boone noted that the pilot staff will receive training from staff at Eugene's White Bird Clinic—a mental health nonprofit that's operated a program similar to Portland Street Response for decades.
BOEC Director Bob Cozzie told commissioners that it's unlikely the program will decrease the number of 911 calls—but said that Portland Street Response's work will give officers more time to focus on critical emergencies.
It's a needed relief. In the past year, nearly a quarter of all Portland 911 calls were about "unwanted persons," time-consuming encounters that pull officers away from responding to actual crimes. During that same period of time, more than half of all arrests in Portland were of people identified as homeless.
"[Portland Street Response] is allowing us to redirect our resources to the calls that really, truly need a law enforcement officer there," said PPB Chief Danielle Outlaw. "I think this also decreases the likelihood of criminalizing those who have not committed a crime."
Outlaw said that staff with Hardesty's office visited each PPB precinct office to get officer feedback before drafting the pilot plan. She thanked several PPB officers who were involved in the work group behind the proposal.
"We are pleased to be a part of this pilot program," Outlaw said.
Not all officers are as eager to support the program. On Wednesday, Daryl Turner, the president of the Portland Police Association (PPB's union for rank-and-file officers) shared his skepticism in the program's purpose on the union's Facebook page.
"Time will tell whether this is a worthwhile, long-term investment," Turner wrote. "Even if the street response program is a success, it’s imperative that we continue to pave the way for PPB to successfully address the serious, ongoing livability issues in our neighborhoods."
Turner has long accused City Hall for not doing enough to address the city's issues involving homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness. He's chided Wheeler for placing "the burden of the homelessness solution on the Police Bureau’s shoulders" without sufficient resources.
Yet, now confronted with a city-funded solution meant to free up officers' time, Turner appears unimpressed. Instead of applauding the promised relief, he took the proposal as an insult to his fellow officers—and a chance to ask for a bigger police budget.
"Part of the street response project is built on a false premise and perception that Portland police officers are ill-suited to address mental health and homelessness issues in a constructive and safe manner," Turner wrote. "Nothing could be further from the truth."
Wheeler came prepared to address these concerns at the Thursday meeting.
"I want to be very clear that there are people who are trained and highly effective in crisis intervention on both the fire bureau and police bureau," said Wheeler. "I don’t want any of our firefighters or any police officers to think that this is a judgement on them. This is not about personnel. This is about refining a system so it better responds to the needs of the community."
The four commissioners present voted in favor of the Portland Street Response. Commissioner Amanda Fritz expressed slight concern about the program's future financing, but not enough to lose her vote. All commissioners praised the four bureaus for working together in a city government that can often leave departments feeling siloed.
"Well, look at what can happen when we bring everyone around the same table," said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. "This is a pilot program, but it's already a proven response. I have the utmost confidence that in a year from now we’ll be back here talking about expanding it."