Portland police at the scene of a police shooting in 2021.
Portland police at the scene of a police shooting in 2021. MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND

A contract renewal headed to Portland City Council this week has raised questions about the future of Portland law enforcement's relationship with private business organizations.

On Wednesday, commissioners will hear a proposal to approve a two-year contract between the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) and Downtown Clean & Safe, an organization that charges property owners located within its 213-block downtown boundary to fund additional, or “enhanced,” services not already provided by the city—like graffiti removal, expanded trash pick-up, and augmented security patrols. In this document, Clean & Safe agrees to cover 80 percent of the salaries for four PPB officers in exchange for those officers' dedicated patrol of the Clean & Safe business district.

Clean & Safe's downtown district is one of three Enhanced Service Districts (ESD) in Portland, each of which are overseen by a private organization. Yet Clean & Safe, which is an arm of the Portland Business Alliance, is the only ESD that currently contracts with Portland police officers to help patrol its district. PPB has partnered with Clean & Safe since 1997.

Shawn Campbell, the city's designated ESD coordinator, said that there is little difference between the new contract and the previous years' agreements between Clean & Safe and PPB. Like the current structure, the four officers will be under the command of PPB, yet they will be dispatched to emergency calls in the district both through the city's standard 911 system and through calls made from private Clean & Safe security guards, via a private radio system.

The officers will also attend daily meetings with Clean & Safe security teams and be responsible for "problem solving" criminal issues in the area with security guards and businesses. The contract notes that "day to day deployment and coordination" of the assigned PPB officers will be jointly overseen by both Clean & Safe's security manager and a PPB sergeant.

Campbell stressed that this doesn't make them Clean & Safe's private security team.

"The officers are not working for Clean & Safe, they are just contracted to work within a specific area," said Campbell. "They will follow the policies and procedures of the police bureau. If Clean & Safe security is holding someone and radios to the police and says that the person should be arrested, but the police disagree, that's allowed."

There is a notable area where past PPB contracts with Clean & Safe and this latest agreement differ. This proposed contract only lasts for two years, while previous agreements covered a five year span. Instead, the proposal suggests phasing out Clean & Safe's contractual relationship with PPB in 2024. Campbell said that the decision reflects the city's interest in moving away from leasing its law enforcement officers to private entities. City commissioners came to this conclusion after a 2020 audit found the ESD program lacked substantive city oversight and raised concerns about privately hired law enforcement patrolling public areas.

"This contract came out of us looking at the relationship between private organizations and public safety mentioned in the audit," said Campbell. "The overall goal is to get ESDs away from funding public safety."

But the contract does not sever PPB's ties with the business district it's contracted to patrol after two years.

Instead, it appears to move the cost of these designated officers from Clean & Safe and onto taxpayers. In the contract, PPB agrees to independently maintain up to four officer positions in the Clean & Safe district for "at least" two years after the contract ends. During that time, PPB officers will still meet regularly with Clean & Safe's private security team and be available for direct contact.

Stop the Sweeps PDX, a grassroots organization whose research into ESDs sparked the city's 2020 audit, has raised concerns about the private-public relationships upheld in ESD contracts for years. In a statement shared with the Mercury, the group said they do not see any improvements to this problem in the proposed contract.

"By phasing out the funding from Clean & Safe to the PPB, it is now ensuring that the public will be funding private interests entirely for the exact same role they were serving before," Stop the Sweeps PDX wrote. "All it does is save money for large property owners by making the poor pay to have themselves cited and arrested."

The organization said the contract appears to ignore any of the lessons culled from the 2020 audit. They aren't the only group that feels this way.

Kelly Simon, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon, says the contract reflects the city prioritizing public safety to address the needs of a select few.

"The concern for us is that Portland police, in theory, work for the public—not individual entities," said Simon. "What if I’m a person forced to sleep outside in downtown Portland. Can I call PPB directly if I have a concern for my safety? Can I have regular morning meetings with police? No. And that's what this contract essentially allows a private business organization to do."

Simon called the fact that City Council would approve a plan to make the public pay to keep officers policing Clean & Safe's district after the contract ends "deeply concerning, if not immoral."

The contract comes to City Council amid a heightened focus the city's Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood, which is included in the Clean & Safe District. Last week, a group of Old Town business owners held a press conference to call for community's help in responding to trash and crime in the neighborhood—and criticized the city's perceived lack of response to these issues. In the meantime, the city has prioritized removing homeless encampments in Old Town neighborhood over the next few weeks.

City Council will hear a presentation on the proposed contract Wednesday at 3 pm.