Police Reform Progress 2021
The beginning of last year’s protests coincided with City Council’s deliberations on the city budget, a vote that determines Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) funding for the year. Of the nearly 800 people who signed up to testify on the city budget in June 2020, the majority of them echoed a request to cut the police bureau’s budget by $50 million. That request was the brainchild of two local social justice organizations, Unite Oregon and Imagine Black (previously the Portland African American Leadership Forum [PAALF]). The organizations envisioned that $50 million being reinvested into community programs to address systemic social issues which police are often called on to resolve.
Despite sustained pressure, City Council shaved a still-significant $15 million off of PPB’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, effectively ending three contentious PPB programs in the process: the Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT), the School Resource Officers (SRO) department, and PPB’s participation in TriMet’s transit police unit. The budget rerouted $4.8 million of PPB dollars to the Portland Street Response pilot, a program that sends trained mental health workers to respond to certain 911 calls instead of police. Wheeler said the budget reflected the call to “reimagine policing” heard by Portland activists.
"The reality is very clear, it's unmistakable that many people in this community, they do not feel safe in the City of Portland," said Wheeler at the time. "And that requires me, as the leader of this city, to fundamentally rethink what safety means in this community.”
Commissioners promised to continue slimming the police bureau later in the year, during the council’s fall budget monitoring process—an opportunity for commissioners to make minor adjustments to the budget passed earlier in the year. But by November, three out of five commissioners chose not to support an additional $18 million cut to the PPB, one that would have used police funding to support Portlanders financially burdened by COVID-19 and those living outside.
“The reality is very clear, it's unmistakable that many people in this community, they do not feel safe in the City of Portland.” -Mayor Ted Wheeler
So, where do those initial budget cuts stand now?
Mayor Wheeler began 2021 by unveiling a plan to essentially reinstate the GVRT, a program with a history of disproportionately targeting Black men, with a pair of new acronyms: the Enhanced Community Safety Team (ECST), a team of 21 police assigned to investigate gun crimes and respond to 911 calls involving a firearm, and the Focused Intervention Team (FIT), a team of 12 officers tasked with “proactive enforcement” to interrupt the city’s current surge in gun violence. There’s little difference between the GVRT and the FIT, aside from a proposed oversight board of members of the public that will provide weekly analysis to FIT officers’ work and a new city employee hired to analyze data on FIT operations.
The FIT has not been formed yet. City Council must first appoint 11 members of the public to the FIT oversight board, a process that Wheeler’s office said will take place in coming weeks. The FIT oversight board will be responsible for interviewing and hiring PPB officers who’ve applied to serve on the FIT—as well as defining the scope of the board’s work. According to Wheeler staffer Sam Adams, FIT oversight board will review the decisions made by FIT officers each week and make determinations on whether or not their work is unbiased and in line with PPB training.
Since police will be discussing specific investigations and suspects with this oversight group, the group’s weekly meetings will only be semi-public. Each meeting will include the opportunity for members to enter an “executive session,” where members of the public cannot listen in. This requirement means members of the oversight group must sign a non-disclosure agreement before joining. It’s an unusual requirement for a volunteer citizen board.
“We want to make sure they have their independence and that their time is spent meaningfully,” said Adams of the oversight group. “We think that this kind of radical disclosure is critical to make that work.”
TriMet’s transit police team, meanwhile, has been absent of any PPB officers since December 31, 2020. In April 2021, TriMet signed an agreement placing Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office at the helm of the multi-jurisdictional transit police team, which responds to any 911 calls originating on or involving public transit. The team is composed of officers from Clackamas County, Washington County, Beaverton, Gresham, Hillsboro, and Port of Portland.
According to Roberta Altstadt, a spokesperson for TriMet, the agency is struggling to expand the police team in PPB’s wake: In early 2020, the transit police team was made up of 50 officers, and now only 19 are assigned to the unit.
“There is a shortage of officers, and we are feeling it,” said Altstadt. Like the city, TriMet is interested in developing an unarmed security team that can respond to calls related to passengers’ behavioral health issues or social conflicts.
“We’re still in the process of finding the right people for that job, and how it would operate,” Altstadt said. “But it’s in the works.”
Altstadt said that TriMet still has “a great relationship” with PPB, and its transit officers still work with PPB officers in the field.
And PPB’s role of serving as Student Resource Officers, police assigned to monitor schools and build relationships with students, remains over. SROs usually responded to 911 calls coming from a school they partnered with, as they were considered more familiar with the school’s dynamics than other officers. The PPB budget cuts removed SROs from all Portland metro school districts, influenced by a local student-led campaign and national data showing SROs disproportionately arrest and surveil students of color.
The lack of in-person learning for most of the last year surely lessened the felt absence of SROs. Portland Public Schools (PPS), the district that relied most on PPB’s SROs, did not respond to the Mercury’s request for comment.
Portland City Council is again in the final stages of its annual budgeting process, with a final vote scheduled for June 17. This year, Wheeler is asking the City Council to support a PPB budget of $228.8 million, a .06 percent dip from last year’s $230.2 million. But for some city commissioners, the budget doesn’t go far enough to uphold the city’s commitment to overhaul policing.
“There are many in our community that want to pretend last year didn’t happen.” -City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty
Wheeler’s budget also distributes just under $1 million to Portland Street Response, allowing its current pilot program to finish out the year—but restricting its ability to expand citywide in March 2022, as originally planned. This is a change from what was promised in last year’s budget, which pledged an additional $3.6 million for the program’s expansion.Wheeler said recently he wanted to see data on the success of the pilot program before agreeing to more funding. To Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who is spearheading the program, and members of the public that support the alternative public safety model, this felt like a reversal of 2020’s promises.
“There are many in our community that want to pretend last year didn’t happen,” Hardesty told a group of protesters memorializing George Floyd on May 22. “That it was a bad dream... and they just want to wake up and go back to normal. I refuse to go back to an unjust normal.”
Wheeler’s proposed budget also funds the rapid hiring of 30 new police officers to account for a large number of officer retirements and resignations in 2020. Additionally, Wheeler wants to hire 22 new employees to serve as Public Safety Support Specialists (dubbed PS3s), an unarmed staff position that helps officers follow up on property crime, traffic accidents, and any other non-violent crimes. Another amendment, introduced by Hardesty, puts $250,000 towards a "Truth and Reconciliation process," which will create a roadmap for police and community members to work together and confront the city’s history of racist policing.
In an interview with the Mercury, Wheeler said his budget reflects what he’s heard from the community about policing over the course of the last year.
“What the community is asking for is improved policing,” Wheeler said. “They want police who are responsive to the needs of the community, reflective of the community, and accountable.”
While he’s heard calls to abolish the police bureau completely, Wheeler firmly believes it’s not what the majority of Portlanders are interested in—including himself.
“What I hear [from the public] is not just that we want a police bureau, but we want a really outstanding police bureau,” he said. “Police are needed in this community, and it’s important for the council to give them adequate support, training, and analytical support to do their job. Where police are not needed, we need to support successful alternatives.”
Members of Unite Oregon, one of the organizations that drafted the plan to cut PPB by $50 million last year, said this year’s proposed budget doesn’t address the concerns they’ve heard from the community in the past year.
“Politicians invite us and other activists to speak, and listen to us, but our words don’t go much further than that,” said Gloria Ochoa-Sandoval, political advocacy director for Unite Oregon, in an interview with the Mercury. “That’s what’s so frustrating—we are doing our part to bring people to the table, but [city commissioners] aren’t taking our words and turning them into actual actions. It’s time they did their part, and represented us.”