Fusion of city, county police gains traction
The stars are as aligned as they'll ever be for Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese's long-sought goal of marrying his former agency, the Portland Police Bureau, to the office he now heads.
While serving as Portland Police Chief until 2014, Reese was a proponent of city police officers and sheriff's deputies working together under the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office — the agency he took over in August.
Now he is engaged in preliminary talks with Portland Police Chief Mike Marshman — Reese's friend and former top aide — to look at ways to consolidate the two agencies' services. And he's got the support of County Chair Deborah Kafoury as well as Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, who formerly held the job of county chair.
That said, a full-blown merger would be a huge undertaking, observers say. And for now, rather than a full marriage, the two agencies are expected to try the bureaucratic equivalent of shacking up: sharing some functions, such as training, and having special units work together in new task forces.
"I think that there's a lot of things that we can do right now that can make a difference," said Kafoury, who has been meeting with Reese to talk about the idea. "We'll be more effective, but also, hopefully, save some dollars."
Wheeler recently cited public safety consolidation as Exhibit A for how the city's looming budget deficit could drive new ideas.
"There are some things that a fiscal crisis can drive us to do that we might not normally have the energy for otherwise," he said in an interview. "I absolutely think there are opportunities there."
Consolidation of the two agencies might seem a no-brainer. The Portland Police Bureau costs $200 million a year and employs about 900 cops for patrol and special units such as a drugs and vice division.
With a $137 million budget, the Multnomah Sheriff's Office employs more than 400 corrections deputies to run two jails as well as more than 100 uniformed deputies that patrol areas east of the city and staff special units.
While the idea of merging the organizations has been looked at many times over the years, it's never happened.
In 1974, after an in-depth study of a countywide law enforcement agency, Multnomah County voters rejected the idea at the ballot.
In 1994, a joint city-county report decided that a full merger would be too costly to implement, but collaboration would lead to savings.
In 2006, the county Board of Commissioners supported a pooled law-enforcement budget in pursuit of efficiencies, but the idea never went anywhere.
In March 2013, while Reese was chief, the Portland Police Bureau prepared a confidential white paper supporting consolidation for a meeting between Reese, Mayor Charlie Hales, County Chair Jeff Cogen and Sheriff Dan Staton. The idea never got off the ground.
Reese stresses that he and Marshman are not currently talking about a merger. Rather, they're talking about collaboration between their two agencies and perhaps some functional consolidation, such as having officers work together under a unified command in a task force similar to the TriMet police.
The two agencies' special drug units are first up for consideration; after that Reese thinks training would be a good place to join forces. But he thinks there are other areas that would benefit from collaboration as well.
"You could look at almost every operation that we do and go down the list and say, 'Can we do this more effectively doing it together?' " Reese said. "You're going to see us asking those questions and engaging in conversations that we haven't engaged in in the past."
While he's optimistic that he and Marshman can achieve efficiencies through better collaboration, Reese said he won't be touching the idea of a full-blown merger unless others want to look at it, such as the Portland City Council.
"A true consolidation or merger between PPB and MCSO would be a complex undertaking involving several political entities and labor associations," he said. "It would require significant research and process to determine feasibility, cost savings and efficiencies in operations."
It would represent a merger in culture as well. Former sheriff's deputies and cops with knowledge of both agencies say Portland, because it fields a high number of police calls, has developed a more fast-paced style of policing than that of Multnomah County, which has traditionally prided itself on a more people-focused approach.
Politically speaking, the Portland City Council might find the idea newly appealing in light of how critics of police have at times disrupted public meetings at City Hall in the last year.
But the unions representing Portland police and Multnomah sheriff's deputies agreed with Reese that while collaboration sounds promising, merging would be difficult at best.
A merger is "something that may sound inviting but ... it may not be advantageous financially," said Daryl Turner of the Portland Police Association.
"It's such a complex issue," said Matt Ferguson, of the county Deputy Sheriffs Association. "It would be an interesting process to see what happens, but it would also be very difficult."
Wheeler sounds the most aggressive of the lot. He declined to rule out merging patrol services, and explicitly talked about taking over police duties for smaller cities outside of Portland such as Wood Village and Troutdale.
"There are functions that we could talk about merging," he said, adding that of the outlying cities, "their needs are needs that I fundamentally believe that we can address."
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