This week, Mayor Ted Wheeler will ask city commissioners to pull thousands of dollars from other city programs to fund the salaries of new Portland police officers. Meanwhile, 1,038,251 city dollars that are meant to solve the city’s biggest policing problems sit unused.
The Portland Police Bureau (PPB) currently employs 946 sworn officers—or, cops who have a badge, a firearm, and the power to arrest someone. Earlier this year, Wheeler proposed hiring 93 new sworn officers, but community pushback dropped that number first to 58 and then to 55. Still, it’s a stark contrast to 2017’s budget, which cut five sworn officer positions by eliminating mounted patrol.
As he’s campaigned to add new officers to the 2018-2019 city budget, Wheeler’s repeatedly mentioned two PPB problems that more police officers could solve: Improving 911 response times and strengthening police-community relations.
These are problems, however, that an already-funded 2017 PPB program was created to solve.
While last year’s PPB budget didn’t add any new sworn officer positions, it did fund 14 full-time positions for a “Community Service Officers” pilot program. The program, which was granted $1,159,293 in ongoing funding, was meant to “provide service to community members,” a vague task that apparently takes sworn officers away from responding to criminal activity.
According to the city budget office, the number of 911 calls that require police dispatch have increased 22 percent in the past five years. But an increasing majority of these calls are labeled “low and medium priority”—calls that may include welfare checks, an “unwanted person,” “suspicious circumstances,” or car theft.
These aren’t necessarily calls that armed, sworn police officers need to respond to. In fact, these calls epitomize the exact tasks the Community Service Officers are meant to address: “addressing lower-level enforcement issues and... taking reports.”
So what happened to that year-old pilot program? Why do we need dozens of new sworn officers to tackle community issues when we’ve already tasked a PPB team to do the job?
The short answer: It still hasn’t been created.
Since Portland City Council approved the 2017-2018 budget a year ago, only one percent of the funds set aside for the Community Service Officer program have been spent. According to PPB, that $121,042 has paid for one officer who’s been given the task of developing the program single-handedly. That leaves $1,038,251 in taxpayer funds unused.
Michael Cox, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, says the city remains in negotiations with Portland Police Association—the city police union—on what, exactly, that pilot program will look like.
In last year’s budget, the pilot program took center stage, touted by Wheeler as a needed solution to help over-burdened sworn officers. This year, the only mention of the program is buried as a footnote to the PPB budget, swimming in bureaucratic promises of “joint quarterly reports” and “progress toward implementation.” According to the budget, it’ll be up and running by the end of 2018.
Until then, we’ll keep throwing more money at sworn officers to do the same job.