Experts: Many challenges to increasing public safety
Several serious challenges must be overcome to reduce crime and increase public safety in the metropolitan region. They include hiring more Portland police officers, reducing the number of guns on the streets, increasing scheduled criminal trials limited by the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting a new methamphetamine surge, and building community trust with law enforcement agencies.
Those were among the challenges identified by a panel of law enforcement and social service experts who spoke to the Portland Business Alliance during on online morning forum on Tuesday, Nov. 9. It was held during an unprecedented surge in gun violence in the Portland area and the day before City Council is scheduled consider spending millions in surplus funds to increase police hiring, furnish officers with body-worn cameras, and expand the non-police alternative Portland Street Response program city wide.
"The Portland police lack the staff to have an adequate patrol force," said Acting U.S. Attorney Scott Asphaug, who also faulted the council for disbanding the Portland Police Bureau's Gun Violence Reduction Team during the social justice protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year. The team, previously called the Gang Enforcement Team, has been repeatedly accused of racial profiling.
"Dissolving the team was a blow to law enforcement," said Asphaug, who argued that retaliatory gang shootings and homicides had spiked in its absence.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell agreed the bureau is short-staffed, saying it currently has only 788 sworn members. That is the lowest number in 30 years, even though the population of the city has increased over the past three decades. The council will consider rehiring 25 recently retired Portland officers during the Fall Budget Monitoring Process that continues Wednesday. He warned that getting a significant number of new officers on the streets will take years, however, because of the recruitment, training and probationary process lasts two years.
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt said his office has prioritized firearms cases and is working closely with the police to build and file them. But Schmidt admitted a large backlog of cases has built up since the state court system all but shut down during the early stages of the pandemic. Only about four to nine cases are now being scheduled a week, compared to 20 to 30 a week before social distancing and other restrictions were put in place.
"Without a (scheduled) trial, there's no real incentive to resolve these case," said Schmidt, who was hopeful that scheduled cases will return to pre-pandemic levels early next year.
Robyn Burke, program manager for the Portland Street Response program, was optimistic the new service will significantly decrease the workload on police by early next year. The program teams a Portland Fire & Rescue paramedic with a mental health profession to respond to 911 calls that do not require police. It has been operating as a pilot program in the Lents neighborhood and recently expanded to most East Portland. The council is expected to expand it citywide during the fall budget monitoring process, although not 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Burke said that should happen with the next fiscal year budget that takes effect on July 1, 2022.
"About 75% of the calls are welfare checks, and the rest are suspicious person, unwanted person and trespassing," Burke said about the results of the pilot program.
Mayor Ted Wheeler made a recorded presentation that focused on his public safety requests that the council will continue considering Wednesday. They total more than $7 million and include increasing the police bureau's in-house training resources. The council has $62 million in surplus funds to spend generated from higher-then-expected business license taxes. The council is also expected to partner with the Multnomah County Commission to spend $38 million more on homeless and clean up services.
Other challenges identified by the panelists included: anecdotal evidence that a number of people charged with crimes are continuing to break the law while awaiting their delayed trials; a small group of anarchists who repeatedly vandalize property that are hindering downtown's full reopening; restrictions on minor Portland police traffic stops that are encouraging gang members to carry guns in their cars; years of disproportional policing of community of colors that have destabilized families; youth-oriented social service, school and after-school programs disrupted by the COVID-19 restrictions; and a 65% increase in gun sales over the past year with some ending up on the streets.
Other solutions proposed by the panelist included increasing partnerships between law enforcement agencies, such as the police Bureau's Enhanced Community Safety Team that investigates shootings in the city and the multi-jurisdictional Portland Area Crime Gun Initiative that is working to trace and seize guns used in shootings throughout the county.
Lovell also cited the community board created to oversee the newly authorized Focused Intervention Team that will replace the former Gun Violence Reduction Team by the end of the month. He said it will help ensure the new team will not racially profile suspects.
The panel was moderated by Oregonian/OregonLive City Hall reporter Shane Kavanaugh. The Portland Business Alliance is a membership organization that represents businesses and is the city's Chamber of Commerce.
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