IN UNIFORM, Portland cops are tough to miss, branded clearly by the place they serve. Twice on their shoulder patches, large and then small, the word blares in bright-yellow embroidery: "Portland."
But stick 'em in civvies, and something funny happens: They don't blend in with the masses, like you might expect. Mostly, they just vanish.
According to a Mercury analysis of all Portland workers' home ZIP codes, as little as one quarter of the police bureau's 1,204 employees actually live within city limits—a figure that climbs only slightly, to almost one third, if you generously count every worker who lives in a ZIP code that even briefly crosses the city's borders.
Even in that best-case scenario, the share of police workers who live in Portland still lags behind nearly every other city bureau and office (only the fire bureau comes close). And, according to a review of 2008 census data prepared for the Mercury by a state workforce analyst, it also significantly trails the 43 percent of private citizens who both live and work in Portland.
"It's surprising that it's that low of a number," says Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, referring to low-end projections that show only as few as 300 or so police employees making their homes in Portland.
DEFINING A PATTERN
The data, obtained through a public records request, fixes firm numbers on a pattern police officials have long acknowledged only anecdotally. Moreover, it also reveals just how much more work city hall must do to encourage its officers to live among those they protect—a particularly urgent mission, advocates say, amid a time of deep distrust following a series of high-profile police attacks.
"When you're talking about community policing, it's concerning when the numbers suggest that officers don't like the community," says Chris O'Connor, a Multnomah County public defender and police reform advocate. "What you end up with is the community perception that the police are like an occupying army.
"A teacher at the school is not going to have students whose parents are police officers. A grocery store manager will only see officers when they call with a problem. They're not his customers."
The aim, advocates say, is saving lives and building relationships. A sense of trust, they say, might have rescued someone like Aaron Campbell, an unarmed suicidal man shot dead by police in January. The day before Campbell was killed, when he was threatening to kill himself and fired a gun at the sky, his girlfriend didn't call police because, she said later, she didn't believe he would emerge from the encounter alive ["Let's Fix the Portland Police Bureau!" Feature, March 4].
Beyond that, there are a host of practical reasons: In an emergency like an earthquake, it would be easier for off-duty officers to report to work if they already lived in the city; discouraging long commutes eases traffic and pollution; and more of the tens of millions spent on police salaries would be reinvested into the city's economy.
MILES FROM THE BEAT
So where do police bureau workers actually live, if it's not in Portland?
Places like Gresham. Also Troutdale, Beaverton, and West Linn—communities that sprawl miles away from the faces they see on the beat. Another large share, about one in five, trek to homes across the Columbia River, in Washington. Just more than one in 10 private workers in Portland make the same trip.
Employees also tend to cluster in spots where the bureau's average salary of $69,858 might stretch further. Those workers who do live in Portland are more likely to live on the city's far east and west sides, or in North Portland. (The ZIP code data doesn't correspond to job titles, so it's impossible to chart precisely where, say, patrol officers and non-sworn personnel live compared to their more handsomely paid commanding officers.)
"When you're talking about officers, at some point they need to have down time and be off the job. Or you won't have a healthy police force," says police spokeswoman Lieutenant Kelli Sheffer. "Personally, I don't think those property lines necessarily make a difference in what kind of officer you are and how engaged you are in the community."
Portland has tried over the years to help more officers nest in the city. The police bureau currently offers 10-year, $5,000 interest-free loans to new recruits moving from more than 100 miles away, with half that sum forgiven if recruits settle in Portland for the life of the loan. A pending proposal would turn that loan into a direct $2,500 subsidy.
The bureau also, at times, has helped officers who are willing to live in troubled areas obtain favorable home loans, officials said. In the early 1990s, then-Police Chief Charles Moose made a show of moving to such a home in the Boise-Eliot neighborhood. And for a few years starting in 1988, the city tried requiring that most of its employees either live inside, or just outside, Portland.
A FADING PRACTICE
There are still some cities, like Chicago, where officers are banned from living in suburbs. But a growing number—like Philadelphia, last year—are moving away from the practice, under pressure from unions seeking tradeoffs for pay concessions in tight economic times. Portland officials, currently negotiating a new contract with the city's police union, are decidedly avoiding discussions of residency.
Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, told the Mercury that while he might support an approach that gives cops incentives to pack up for the big city, he also doubts there's all that much to be gained. Officers still shop and dine in Portland proper, he claims, and besides, living in outlying areas is practically the same thing.
"Yes, you live in some place with a different name, but they're so close to Portland that it's almost like living in the city," he says. "Compared to other cities, just because there's a residency requirement, it doesn't always mean the law enforcement there is any better."
Sheffer, the police bureau's spokeswoman, says she's noticed a generational shift in how officers decide where to live. More and more younger cops are considering downtown and in close-in Northeast, she says, even while older-guard cops, especially those with families, grit through long commutes and cling to their hamlets in East County.
"Say they run into someone in the grocery store, someone they arrested," Sheffer says. "That's a real point of vulnerability. A general person doesn't understand what that feels like."
Penny Harrington, who served as Portland's police chief in the mid-1980s, just before the city's time of residency requirements, said she always had "mixed emotions" about where cops ought to live. She agrees that having time away is vital for cops. But she called any arguments about safety "silly," saying cops are as much of a target in Gresham as they are on East Burnside.
Her solution? Withholding promotions unless officers got involved—working as tutors, serving on nonprofits, coaching Little League games.
"I didn't think it was fair to require officers to live in the city," she says. "But I recognized the importance of them being more closely aligned with the people who do live in Portland."