An art installation erected in front of Portland City Hall during August protests reads DEFUND
An art installation erected in front of Portland City Hall during August protests reads "DEFUND" Tojo Andrianarivo

City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty's proposal to cut $18 million from the Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) current $230 million budget has failed to collect the votes needed to advance.

In a Thursday City Council meeting, only two commissioners—Hardesty and City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly—voted in favor of the proposal, while the three other commissioners called the approach rushed and divisive.

"Since May, we've heard, over and over, this community voice that gave us a clear mandate: That we rethink what community safety looks like," said Hardesty, after realizing her proposal did not have the votes needed to pass. "That's what you've been asked to do. But instead, you want to have the traditional governmental approach."

Hardesty first introduced this proposal—in the form of a budget amendment—last week, during a yearly meeting where commissioners suggest minor adjustments to the city's annual budget, which was passed in June. The amendment suggested rerouting $18 million in PPB dollars into city programs that address the economic impacts of COVID-19 on the community and offer alternatives to police.

Specifically, the amendment would cover emergency food and household assistance, expand outdoor homeless shelters and hygiene stations, and fund legal defense for Portlanders facing eviction due to COVID-19's financial toll.

"These investments have the ability to address the destabilizing events that can lead to increased crime in a way that will not be accomplished by funding the Portland Police Bureau," Eudaly said, before voting in support of the amendment Thursday.

This cut would be in addition to the $15 million City Council already voted to cut in June. While the majority of community members testifying on this amendment last week supported Hardesty's proposal, others worried that the cuts could be a detriment to public safety.

Mayor Ted Wheeler echoed these concerns, and questioned Hardesty's assurance that the budget reduction would not cut any PPB jobs. An analysis by the city's budget office, completed on Wheeler's request, has since shown that layoffs would be necessary in order to reach the $18 million goal.

At Thursday's meeting, Wheeler said he was "troubled" by this contradictory information. But, he said, his "no" vote in opposition was based more on values than procedure and budgetary line-items.

"The testimony we’ve heard has been clear: the status quo is unacceptable," he said. "Many Portlanders do not trust the criminal justice system as it stands today. And they do not trust the Portland Police Bureau. There are many ways that we can change the status quo."

Wheeler said that includes stopping the over-policing of the poor, people of color, and the homeless population, and curtailing excessive use of force against people with mental illnesses (an issue that led to the US Department of Justice suing Portland in 2010).

"I’m committed to preventing and interrupting these patterns of injustice," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said City Council should instead identify the root of the city's policing issues and "invest in upstream solutions" before making further cuts.

City commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Ryan shared Wheeler's stance. Ryan, a council newcomer, had initially been identified as a potential swing vote in passing Hardesty's amendment. But his statements Thursday expressed an interest in collecting more data on how to best improve PPB over immediate action.

"It is our responsibility to work together to meet the demands of our constituents and present a plan that is impactful and grounded in data, sound budgeting, and community engagement," said Ryan, before voting against Hardesty's proposal.

Before casting her vote in opposition, Fritz compared the amendment to Oregon's decision to start shuttering state psychiatric hospitals in the 1980s before establishing a new, more humane system for treating people with mental illnesses. In short, she suggested that making cuts without a new plan for policing in place would be dangerous for Portland.

She specifically pointed to the Portland Street Response, a city program that hopes to replace armed police officers responding to low-level mental health or houseless-related 911 calls with a team of trained first responders and social workers. A pilot version of the Portland Street Response was expected to start in the spring, but has been delayed until early 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fritz said that the street response should be up and running before the city tries to further defund PPB.

Hardesty argued that the Portland Street Response, a program championed by her office, was never meant to replace police.

"The vision has always been that we could have a more compassionate, community response to people who are houseless," said Hardesty. "Rather than spending our resources arresting more than 50 percent of people who are houseless. Which is what Portland police have done."

Council did approve a separate amendment later Thursday afternoon that increased Bureau of Emergency Communications budget by $95,500 to help cover the salaries for five dispatch operators for the Portland Street Response (Fritz still voted against this amendment).

Hardesty said she was discouraged by her fellow commissioners' hesitancy to listen to Black community members asking for radical change.

"It is disappointing that the status quo will reassert itself in this process," said Hardesty. "So we’ll continue to talk about Black lives but we won't actually do anything to make these Black lives better."

Thursday's meeting took place against the backdrop of Tuesday's election results. In her testimony, Fritz said that Wheeler's reelection was a clear sign that voters backed his decisions on policing. And Hardesty mentioned that she'll miss the support she has found in Eudaly, who did not win her reelection bid.

"I want to thank Commissioner Eudaly," Hardesty said. "There was nothing in it for her to support the amendment I presented. But she, like I, had listened to the calls and the demands of our community. And we responded. That’s what elected leaders are supposed to do."