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As community concerns reach a new peak, city council reviews 40 actionable public safety items

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Chief Travis Gullberg and the Gresham Police Department heard a report Tuesday, Aug. 16, with 40 actionable items to improve public safety. A year and a half ago the executive director of a Gresham family shelter was brutally assaulted in broad daylight.

Andrea Pickett emotionally recounted the traumatic incident during a Gresham City Council meeting Tuesday evening, Aug. 16, on a day where the spotlight was placed on public safety.

In February 2021 Pickett and another volunteer went in front of My Father's House, 5003 Powell Blvd., to help shovel a route for a single mother trying to get to work after overnight snow and ice. After clearing a space, a car full of strangers pulled in, which is when the trouble began.

Pickett said she approached the vehicle, asking the remaining passenger if she would move the car temporarily. Pickett was met with a string of profanity, as well as calls for the driver and another female passenger to return. That woman punched Pickett in the face three times. The male driver then wrestled the snow shovel out of Pickett's hands, who was stunned and confused, and hit her in the head with the shovel, before driving off.

Gresham Police officers arrived an hour later.

"I am thankful this happened to me and not one of my staff, volunteers or residents," Pickett said, tears in her eyes. "Because they don't have to live with this like I do."

"You don't have to be out at night for something like this to happen," she added. "There are no consequences in our community."

Pickett was one of many people who filled Gresham City Council Chambers to call for an increased investment in the Gresham Police Department.

During the meeting council chewed on the findings of a third-party report that gave 40 actionable items that can be implemented to create better public safety systems.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Community members continue to flood Gresham Council Chambers to call for better investments in the police department. In November 2021, the city government hired BerryDunn Consulting Group to develop an analysis of department operations, gather staff feedback, and solicit community input. That report was given during the meeting by Michele Weinzetl, manager with BerryDunn and a former chief of police.

"Community safety is our top priority and it's incredibly helpful to have this comprehensive analysis to ensure we, the Gresham Police Department, provide high-level service," said Gresham Police Chief Travis Gullberg. "While it's never easy to apply a critical eye to operations, this assessment will help us maximize our efficiencies."

The actionable steps, which were all formulated using data collected the past three years by Gresham police, slotted into four main themes — staffing (including recruitment, hiring and retention); personnel development; policies and procedures; and technology utilization.

"The data is highly indicative of an overworked police force," Weinzetl said. "Police expect to work hard, but they are built for sprints not marathons. They are really good at staffing for a calamity, then going back to business as usual."

"Your department has been on a multi-decade marathon," she added.

There's one refrain that came through from the report and experts: That Gresham has some issues to address, but individual police officers are not the problem.

"The staff in the Gresham Police Department are hardworking and care deeply about the community of Gresham," said Deputy City Manager Corey Falls. "I'm confident that their dedication to serving this community along with the recommendations of this report will make us more effective and chart a strategic course for our Police Department for years to come."

Gunfire in downtown

The meeting and report comes a little over a week after gunfire rang out in downtown Gresham, causing residents to hunker down in terror along Main Avenue.

On Friday evening, Aug. 5, volleys of shots were fired across Second Street, near the eponymous 2nd Street Bar, as a group of suspects escalated a verbal altercation into a full-blown shootout. Police recovered 52 bullet casings — 9mm and 40mm — with parked cars and businesses being damaged in the violence. None of the shooters were arrested, nor were any bystanders injured.

"It is heartbreaking to hear the stories," said Councilor Janine Gladfelter. "It is going to take all of us together."

That shooting was the latest, shocking incident in what has been a historic few years of violence in Gresham.

In 2020 there were 67 murder arrests, while 2021 saw 93 murder arrests, the second most in the past three decades. Through the first quarter of 2022, there had been 28 bookings related to murders alongside a 200% increase in shootings reported to the Gresham Police from the previous year — 86 shootings versus 28.

"This is unsustainable, we need to come to our officers aid," said Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall.

For a variety of reasons — better pay, work-life balance, opportunities at the department, lack of city or community support — officers are leaving Gresham in droves, choosing the allegedly greener pastures of the Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. Those 20 positions have all been budgeted for, but the department has been unsuccessful in filling them with new recruits or lateral transfers.

No matter what data was used, or how generous the experts at BerryDunn were with the numbers, Gresham is down about 16 officers for patrols. Meanwhile the report also called for the hiring of three new investigators — though an error in Gresham's database threw off results within the investigations department.

"We have been working with records staff and investigative supervisors to correct these issues," Weinzetl said.

The lack of officers, with a department often relying on just seven officers to cover a night shift in a city of 114,000, has forced the shuttering of the Gresham traffic Unit, Neighborhood Enforcement Team, Transit Division, and School Resource Officers, all so patrols and investigations can remain staffed. Every time an officer leaves, the remaining overworked, stressed officers face heaps of overtime shifts to make up the difference.

BerryDunn's ideas include:

n An overall rise in sworn-officers from 127 to 159 to account for normal churn;

n Improving internal and external communications;

n Prioritizing retention and recruitment;

n Allowing for collaborative approaches that engage public input and support; better database management;

n New protocols for case referrals and reporting; and,

n More positive reinforcement for officers, especially new recruits; and a closer partnership with the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office.

"Patrols first, investigations second, and everything else comes after that," Weinzetl said. "You are struggling to meet the general obligations of a police department."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall said the city needs to find ways to support its officers. Concerned community

It wasn't easy for Pickett to relive that traumatic attack outside of My Father's House, but she thought it was important to share that experience with leadership trying to figure out a way to properly fund their police department.

"I think what I faced speaks to the gravity of our safety situation here in Gresham," she said. "It wasn't one of my residents who attacked me, it was a stranger from the community."

"I don't blame our police," she added. "They are spread so thin they have to prioritize calls."

Her voice wasn't alone, as many others shared their experiences and concerns during a public testimony that at times bordered on heckling council, as many in the standing-room-only audience grumbled, booed and shouted out occasional frustrations toward council.

"You know you are doing a great job when council chambers are empty," said Nick Moon, a Troutdale Councilor and Gresham business owner, while looking pointedly around the room.

One community member spoke about confronting car prowlers in her neighborhood.

"They said, 'What are you going to do, call the cops? They won't come,'" she said.

Another had her car set on fire by what Gresham firefighters later determined to be Molotov cocktails. A police report was taken, but no follow-up is occurring. She has since seen who she believed the culprit to be taken photos of her new car.

Community members spoke about not being able to make reports in-person or online, and the long wait times for the non-emergency number. They lamented the loss of specialized divisions like the Neighborhood Enforcement Team, and the growing number of homeless camps in the community.

"Your pain is also our pain," Stovall said. "Andrea, to hear your story is heart wrenching.

"We stand with you, we stand with all of you," he added.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Councilor Janine Gladfelter voiced her support of the Gresham Police Department. Funding the department

Funding is a problem that has loomed for the past two decades.

Gresham has one of the lowest tax rates in the state, with only about $3.61 per $1,000 in property taxes. In Portland those numbers nearly doubled.

Right now 90% of Gresham's general fund, which is about $80 million, goes toward police and fire services. But those numbers pale in comparison to other municipalities, which have much larger overall budgets despite Gresham being the fourth-largest city in the state. Hillsboro, a similar-sized city, operates a general fund of about $130 million.

Another shocking comparison is with Troutdale and its $25 million general fund. When accounting for populations, that would be the equivalent of about $125 million in Gresham.

"We have been underfunding our police and fire departments for way too long," said Stovall.

The mayor was on two blue ribbon committees that attempted to pass public safety levies, in 2008 and 2014, both of which failed. Other councilors echoed concerns about passing something to create a stable source of funding.

"We hear the community and are living the exact same things you are," said Council President Eddy Morales. "This council has given more resources to our police department than any other council in city history."

And despite the crush of people at city council meetings, the voting public has continued to shout "no," including in a recent city poll that dissuaded leadership from attempting to put something on the November ballot.

"You asked for action," said Councilor Sue Piazza. "Retention of our police officers is important, we can't lose one more."

"Council is listening," Piazza said. "We are moving — I am moving forward with as much as I can."

She disagreed with the city poll's findings, funding her own survey out-of-pocket last weekend, to the chagrin of some of her fellow councilors. Her findings, after connecting with a sample of 300 likely Gresham voters, found that 61% would support public safety and mental health funding.

"We need to move forward as a whole council, rather than moving forward on our own surveys," said Councilor Dina DiNucci. "I'm hoping this can be collaborative, not political."

The city will conduct another survey in October in the hopes of replicating Piazza's findings. If so they expect to place a public safety levy ask on the May or November 2023 ballots.

"This is my third time trying to pass this levy, so I hope to have all your support this time," said Councilor Mario Palmero.

Meanwhile there is a growing sense of optimism within the Gresham Police Department. Though there are still concerns around staffing, which won't be solved any time soon, there are ideas in place that can be steadily addressed and fixed.

"Our staff is embracing this report and the suggestions," Gullberg said. "Now that this report is complete, we can move forward and build."

BerryDunn's team will be back early next month to continue refining these ideas, and will touch base with the Gresham Police Department for the next six months.

"We have support of council, city leaders, and the grace from our community to allow us to process this all," Gullberg said. "We are going to cross each recommendation off one at a time."

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