THE HEAD OF Portland's cop union is in disagreement with the national cop union's line on whether armed rent-a-cops should be able to dress like real police officers.

Portland Police Association boss Robert King told the Mercury last November he thinks downtown rent-a-cops working for Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI) "provide basic security services for downtown businesses like any other security service in the city.

"With the crime downtown we think it's good to have more eyes and ears," King continued. "It keeps everybody safer."

PPI has roughly 30 guards walking a beat in the downtown core, funded by more than $1.5 million a year from the Portland Business Alliance. They dress almost exactly like real cops, and many carry guns, but unlike Portland's professionally trained union police officers, they have no open oversight procedure.

Now, the director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO)—which represents the interests of 238,000 rank-and-file officers nationwide—is taking a stronger line than King is willing to.

"I would agree with the statement that more eyes and ears on the street is a good idea," says Bill Johnson, NAPO's executive director. "But I disagree with the way these men and women are clothed and uniformed—to give the appearance there are more police out there than there actually are, and I think that's a false impression."

King declined to respond to Johnson's comments, but as union boss, the comments put him under increasing pressure to get involved with the debate over whether rent-a-cops should so closely resemble real cops.

"A lot of jurisdictions in the United States have this temptation to buy the appearance of security rather than public safety itself," says Johnson.

One reason King could be reluctant to criticize PPI directly is that cop union members can potentially look forward to working for PPI after they retire. As well as enjoying a healthy pension, armed PPI guards—all of whom are former Portland cops—are rumored to earn almost $20 an hour.

Portland Business Alliance Vice President of Downtown Services Mike Kuykendall disagrees with Johnson's assessment. "Our security officers do not create a false impression of safety," says Kuykendall, who spoke at a banquet for retiring police officers on February 19.

"Downtown is, in fact, safer than it was three years ago thanks to an increase in [private security] officers. Crime is down 30 percent in three years, car prowls 21 percent. The uniforms are part of this 20-year-old program that has kept downtown Portland one of the most livable in the country."