IT WAS MORE than a year ago, in October 2011, when City Commissioner Nick Fish first made an announcement that shook the ground beneath the Portland Business Alliance (PBA)—a vociferous defender of downtown "livability" and one of the city's most influential lobbying groups.
Fish—looking to stretch the city's parks budget—wanted to cancel a 15-year contract and boot the PBA's private security force, Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI), from downtown parks. He hoped to replace them with newly hired park rangers who would answer directly to the city.
Complaining loudly that public safety would be compromised, and stung by the prospect of losing $530,000 a year, the PBA mustered enough muscle to bring about a brief delay. But this May, the first rangers went on patrol. And now, armed with preliminary statistics, buy-in from the cops, and kind words from downtown residents, Fish and his staff are finally ready to crow about a disaster that never happened.
"I've had no negative feedback from the PBA," says Fish. "The reason for making the change wasn't because we were declaring war. We thought there was a better way to spend limited dollars."
Putting the parks bureau back in charge of its own security marked a big shift for Portland after years of creeping privatization of public safety—and a steady drone of questions and complaints about accountability, sanitization, and rough treatment of the homeless.
Right now, the PBA still sends security patrols over dozens of blocks downtown and into the city's parking garages, while also paying the salaries of four police officers. And even the new ranger program retains an element of privatization: Pacific Patrol Services, which minds Pioneer Courthouse Square, has been hired to patrol downtown parks at night.
But by reclaiming some of that work, officials say, the city has found a path that does more with less. The rangers cover more ground than the guards, and in fewer shifts: They now frequent five extra parks in downtown. And they have been trained by social services agencies to help connect people in crisis to housing help.
"We had good relationships with security officers," says Marc Jolin of housing services provider JOIN. "But my sense is that the rangers are more active in the parks, so we probably have more contact with them."
That gentle touch is encouraged. Rangers get to know regulars, and they're expected to independently handle most problems—dispensing warnings and park exclusions without resorting to arrests. Rangers also are unarmed, save for protective pepper spray, but are tied into the police bureau's radio in case of emergencies.
Early statistics provided by Art Hendricks, the parks bureau's security manager, show more than 800 park violations reported from May through September. The number doesn't, however, distinguish between warnings and exclusions. According to a Tribune story from this spring, PPI issued 1,202 exclusions and 2,335 warnings in all of 2011, while having cops make 886 arrests.
"I'm not paying for police officers to be with the rangers," Hendricks explains, adding that because "we're not heavy-handed," he expects a big difference in the annual numbers.
"We're really trying to keep a balance between tending to public safety and nuisance issues and just being able to connect," Hendricks continues.
The PBA last year argued loudly that the changes would make conditions worse downtown, not better. Megan Doern, a spokeswoman for the group, wasn't able to comment before press time on whether the group's feeling better or worse after seeing the preliminary numbers.
But Portland Police Commander Bob Day, who runs the bureau's Central Precinct, was fairly blunt when asked if the shift has led to problems: "Actually, I'd say it's gone well."
Day said the police and parks bureaus are still poring over the data, and that he's slightly concerned about Pacific Patrol Services' ability to manage Waterfront Park. But "from a precinct commander's perspective, my phone isn't ringing off the hook with complaints, so that's one of the things I use as a gauge."
Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots, says he also isn't hearing any additional complaints from any of the homeless Portlanders who rely on the parks for a place where they can just be.
"There are lots of opportunities to work together," he says of the PBA. "But if we're going be divided over these small policy things related to sidewalks and parks, then we're never going get to a place where we're focusing on the bigger stuff."