Portland to undergo sea change in police funding
In any other year, the Portland Police Bureau budget cuts expected to be approved Wednesday would be widely considered radical, if not revolutionary.
But as the nation confronts hundreds of years of racial injustice, even an unprecedented reform of the bureau is unlikely to slow the daily anti-police violence protests shaking the city.
The proposed budget on the June 17 agenda would slash bureau spending by $27 million, abolishing four controversial tactical units, eliminating 84 positions, and making other reductions, as well. The tactical unit cuts, which were pushed most forcibly by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, are a direct response to the movement sparked by the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
"At the end of the day, this budget vote can't be reduced to a simple battle over individual specialty units. Instead, I see it as a direct result of our first round of examinations of the entire system of policing," Hardesty said when the cuts were first approved Wednesday, June 10. Nearly $7 million of the savings will be diverted to alternative public safety and community programs.
Hardesty is a longtime African American civic rights activist, former state legislator, and past president of the NAACP Portland Chapter. She has fought for such reforms for many years, including unsuccessfully moving to defund the Gun Violence Reduction Team, formerly known as the Gang Enforcement Team, during her first year on the council in 2019.
Now the council is poised to do that and much more.
But amid the ongoing protests, the tentative cuts to the bureau's proposed $256.6 million budget were loudly denounced as not nearly enough. Anti-racist activist groups — including Unite Oregon and the Portland African American Leadership Forum — had called for slashing the bureau budget by $50 million and giving all of the money to community-based groups. Many of those who testified on the budget last week went even further, wanting the bureau to be eliminated altogether in occasionally obscenity-laced testimony.
Although Commissioner Chloe Eudaly supported each unit cut, she nevertheless voted against the final $5.6 billion version of next year's budget last week, saying, "While I do support the amendments, these are low-hanging fruit, and I don't believe they go far enough. This moment demands bold action, and we didn't rise to that challenge.
Eudaly's "no" vote last week forced the council to delay the final vote until after press time on June 17.
Calls for the larger cut continued at the large peaceful protests that continued in following days. And the intensity of nightly downtown demonstrations increased, escalating through early Monday morning.
But the cuts expected to be ratified Wednesday still represent a historic shift in the operation of the police bureau by any standard. They include:
• Abolishing the Gun Violence Reduction Team, which has long been accused of racial profiling and arresting a disproportionate number of black Portland residents. Thirty-eight associated positions will be eliminated, saving around $5.4 million.
• Abolishing the Youth Services Division, which provides School Resource Officers to the three school districts in Portland. They have been accused of unfairly treating black students harsher than other students. Fourteen associated positions will be eliminated, saving about $1.9 million.
• Pulling all Portland officers and supervisors out of TriMet's Transit Police Division, which has been accused of enforcing the regional transit agency's rules harder against people of color. Twenty-four associated positions will be eliminated by the end of the year, saving $4.4 million.
• Abolishing the Special Emergency Response Team, the bureau's SWAT team, which has been involved in several high-profile black deaths. This last-minute cut will eliminate eight positions and save $1.1 million. The police promised to still respond to emergencies requiring backup, however.
Other cuts also were needed to help offset a $75 million budget gap caused by revenue losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Altogether, they totaled $27 million for the police bureau alone. It was not immediately clear how many officers will be laid off or shifted to other positions. And Wheeler promised police will continue investigating all shootings and responding to 911 calls for help at schools and transit system properties.
TriMet now is considering whether and how to continue the Transit Police with the 13 other law enforcement agencies in the region.
As part of the overhaul, some of the bureau savings are dedicated to programs advocated by Hardesty and Wheeler.
The Portland Street Response program will receive $4.8 million from the GVRT budget. The program pairs a Portland Fire & Rescue emergency medical technician and a mental health professional to respond to 911 calls that do not require the police. The pilot project scheduled to start earlier this year in Lents was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, however.
About half the budget for school resource officers — $1 million — will go to creating a leadership program centered on black residents age 25 and under. And $1 million of the SERT budget will be dedicated to homeless services.
Newly appointed Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell has promised to implement whatever changes the council approves, saying, "The men and women of the police bureau are part of this community and are here to be part of the solution."
Lovell was appointed to replace Chief Jami Resch, who stepped down to clear the way for him after weeks of protests.
You can find the agenda at www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/26997.
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