Our Opinion: Tigard police need your support this spring
About two months ago, this editorial board took a long look at the Tigard City Council's decision to (once again) refer a property tax increase to the ballot, despite meager support in a public opinion survey paid for by the city government, and heaved a heavy sigh.
"Each time the Tigard City Council pushes a measure to the ballot and it gets trashed at Election Night, the city loses a little more face," we warned in our Jan. 16, 2020, editorial. "If that isn't a concern for Tigard's leaders, perhaps it should be."
We sat down with Tigard Mayor Jason Snider, City Council President John Goodhouse and Police Chief Kathy McAlpine to discuss Ballot Measure 34-295 earlier this month. Even after hearing from those leaders, our criticism holds: If they want to be taken seriously, Tigard cannot keep sending money measures off to voters without listening to their concerns and laying the groundwork to actually get these measures passed. It's bad for the city's reputation; it reflects poorly on city officials' capability to plan for the future; and it diminishes the council's credibility.
All that being said — we urge a "yes" vote on Measure 34-295.
We asked Mayor Snider and Council President Goodhouse to explain the five-member council's decision to refer this measure, a modest tax levy of 29 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, to voters at the May 19 election even after getting poll numbers back that showed little support for it. Their response was forceful and impassioned.
"We have a problem that has to be solved," Snider told us. The survey results weren't what the council had hoped to see, he acknowledged, but he added, "We don't view us as having a lot of choices."
Tigard is a city of 55,000 people. In one of the fastest-growing counties on the West Coast, Tigard is growing faster. When the 2020 Census is conducted, we expect it to show that Tigard grew by about 15% over its 2010 population. That's a significant increase, faster than such famously fast-growing cities as Houston, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.
In a video shot for his State of the City address earlier this year, Mayor Snider interviewed Tigard residents on the street and asked them some questions. One of those questions went something like, "How many patrol officers do you think are on duty in Tigard right now?"
The responses varied. But none of them were close to the truth.
In truth, more than half the time during the swing shift — the busiest time of the day for emergency and medical service calls — the Tigard Police Department's patrol division is at minimum staffing levels.
The lower end of guesses for patrol officers on duty at any given point in Tigard was in the range of 15 to 25. Actually, Tigard only has 33 sworn patrol officers, all told, and those officers are working staggered shifts to provide law enforcement 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 366 days this year.
The actual answer is that Tigard often has no more than three or four patrol officers on duty, depending on the time of day — and it's not uncommon for one or more of those officers to spend an hour or more outside the city during their shift, because they need to take someone to the jail in downtown Hillsboro or escort them to the hospital in Tualatin or Hillsboro or Portland.
As Snider said, this is not sustainable.
McAlpine outlined scenarios in which officers spend their entire shift rushing from call to call to call, trying to prioritize emergencies in which someone's life may be in danger, sometimes letting lower-priority calls slip to the point where they have little choice but to follow up on them an hour or more after they are received, because they are busy with more pressing cases and no one else is available to take up the slack. These aren't hypothetical scenarios — they happen all the time in Tigard, where patrol officers are perpetually stretched thinner than they are in neighboring cities. As a result, officers are often harried, exhausted and unable to work "proactively" in the community.
When McAlpine was hired as police chief in 2017, she talked about the value of "community policing," the concept of building relationships between law enforcement and the people they're sworn to serve and protect, as a way to make Tigard safer. The idea is that if people know their police officers, they are likelier to call and report a crime, or reach out to them with questions or concerns, or cooperate with an investigation, because those officers have taken the time to get to know them and earn their trust. Under this model, police should spend much of their time out and about in the community, rather than chasing drunk drivers down Highway 99W and writing up reports.
Right now, Tigard police are far from that ideal. Instead, they find themselves responding to an ever-growing number of calls for service in a city that's rapidly expanding and plagued by congestion. The city is divided into five patrol districts; with the current minimum staffing levels, it's not uncommon for one officer to be asked to cover two of them at once. There are situations in which an officer could be in River Terrace taking a theft report, then receive an emergency call that there is a potentially dangerous person at Bridgeport Village, and they are the only Tigard officer available to respond. That's a 20-minute drive — without traffic.
What Measure 34-295 would do is inject enough money into the Tigard Police Department for the city to hire eight new patrol officers and one more school resource officer, since right now, Tigard's two middle schools share one school resource officer and the elementary schools have no one. McAlpine says that should be sufficient for Tigard to increase its minimum staffing levels for patrol, so instead of the city having at least three or four patrol officers on duty, it would have at least four or five, depending on the time of day.
Let's be clear: That's still not very many for a city of Tigard's size. This is a bare-bones levy, not just shorn of the other elements in a 2018 measure that voters rejected — which also included money for parks and the library — but scaled down from what an independent audit last year identified as Tigard's near-term needs.
In a positive sign — as in, better late than never — Council President Goodhouse told us that he and others are now volunteering much of their time to get the word out about Tigard's policing situation and the need for an operating levy to support the police department. He estimated he is averaging six hours per day on the campaign, knocking on doors and raising awareness. This is work that should have started in earnest a year or more ago, but at least it's happening now.
If more Tigard residents knew how few patrol officers the city can afford to have on duty right now, maybe a 29-cent levy would have polled much better when the survey was conducted late last year. Maybe the City Council would have even felt confident about putting a slightly larger levy, something that more fully addresses the police department's staffing woes, on the ballot instead of this one.
We understand why voters turned down a far more comprehensive levy two years ago at the eye-popping rate of $1.18 per $1,000 of assessed value. And we understand why voters may be fatigued now, casting a wary eye at yet another city-referred tax measure: "Again? What do they want this time?"
But do the math. On a typical home valued by the county assessor at $280,000, a Tigard resident will pay about $6.75 per month over the next five years for their share of a 29-cent levy.
An adult ticket for an evening showing at Regal Bridgeport Village is $12.50. A basket of truffle fries at McMenamins John Barleycorns Pub & Brewery is $7.50. A 16-ounce latte with almond milk at Symposium Coffee is $6.25.
We're talking about shaving minutes off of emergency response times, lessening the stress and overwork that can turn a good officer into a bad officer, and maybe even freeing up officers to occasionally do something that doesn't involve cuffing perps or filing paperwork — for essentially the same amount of money, per month, that the typical Tigard resident might spend on one trivial item while she's out and about.
Is $6.75 per month really too high a price for the average Tigard homeowner to pay for public safety in a city where the police force is stretched virtually to the breaking point? We don't think it is. Is adding at least one extra patrol officer to the most threadbare shift staffing level a lavish expenditure? We don't think it is. Is a history of failed bond measures and levy options sufficient reason to reject an intentionally low-cost measure with a clear objective at a time the city desperately needs it? We don't think it is.
Vote "yes" on Measure 34-295.
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