Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

MIKE REESE, Portland's police chief of nearly four years, is used to hearing criticism about certain controversial aspects of police work: officer-involved shootings, hiphop raids, homeless camp sweeps, pepper-spraying protesters, etc.

Those are the gray lines in a world of black and white (and blue). They mark the margins and boundaries of police power in a civilized society. Reese might not like it, but he's adjusted to a world where his office must take the time to speak on those issues and publicly defend his officers (or not, if you're Ron Frashour, fired for killing Aaron Campbell in 2010).

But this was different. This wasn't so comfortable.

On Tuesday, April 1, Portland City Council sat down across from the chief and publicly questioned him about something most cops wouldn't see as a gray line or a matter of politics.

They had him defend the bureau's $3.9 million Drugs and Vice Division (DVD)—a group of 29 cops who don't focus on prostitution or street dealing, just mid- and high-level drug rings and (sometimes) violent criminals.

Commissioner Steve Novick (and maybe some of his colleagues) is looking at all that money, the failure of the Nixon-era drug war it's being used to help fight, and everything else the city would like to do with its budget this year, but can't.

In an unprecedented display of political chutzpah, Novick has asked the chief to explain why the sky would fall if the city decides to claw some of that $3.9 million back.

"It's an appropriate conversation to have," Reese, edgier than usual, said after the hearing.

Reese said it. He endured it. (Don't cry: The hearing lasted a little more than half an hour.) But I'm not sure if he believes it.

Novick started off by reading from a 2011 report that called "multibillion-dollar" efforts like those led by the DVD "largely symbolic." Novick then pointed to a report produced by the police bureau's own crime analysts.

"Law enforcement efforts can only touch a small percentage of the drug market that exists in Portland," it says.

Then he asked a question that loomed over the rest of the hearing: "What are we getting for our $4 million?"

Reese gave a few answers, and so did his drugs and vice captain, Mark Kruger. We were told about Mexican cartels. We heard about the ties between drugs and violent crimes. We heard about the 21 times cops spent two or three days, on average, investigating overdose deaths last year. We heard about the ties between drugs and violent crimes. We also heard how the drugs and vice division is a "shell" of itself since Reese led the unit and that eliminating the unit would fuel more crime.

Novick wasn't all that convinced.

"But if you're only affecting a small percentage of the market," he said, "I don't see how it's useful to assume that a reduction in enforcement would result in an explosion [of crime]?"

Reese and Kruger didn't answer with any data. They warned, instead, that chaos would erupt. Again, Novick wasn't convinced.

"We can't change the drug laws," Novick said. "But we can decide how much resources we devote to enforcing them."

His colleagues might not follow him that far. But that they followed him as far as they did is a good sign for city hall.