Council candidates weigh in on police
Portland's conflicting and conflicted views about the police were on full display when the five major candidates to succeed Commissioner Dan Saltzman on the City Council met with the editorial board of the Portland Tribune on Friday.
None of them offered unqualified support for Mayor Ted Wheeler's initial proposal to increase the city's business license tax to hire 58 more police officers. Although the Portland Business Alliance supports the tax increase, the candidates questioned everything from it, to the number of officers to be hired, to how they would be used.
Civil rights activist Jo Ann Hardesty flat out opposed hiring any more officers. The other four indicated a willingness to consider some increase, but wanted assurances that they and all of the other officers in the bureau will be trained on overcoming racial biases and de-escalating confrontations, especially with mentally ill people in crisis.
Northwest neighborhood activist Felicia Williams was the most supportive, saying crime is increasing downtown and threatening the economy. She cited a friend who owns a restaurant where two customers were assaulted by passing strangers, one while eating and the other while leaving.
"There's definitely a problem with public safety downtown," said Williams, who nevertheless did not commit to supporting a specific increase.
Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith was the next most hesitant, saying that her son had been racially profiled and stopped by police because he is African-American. But she also noted that Portland is growing while the number of officers is declining.
"I'm willing to take a look at it, but we can't have new officers without new training," said Smith, who also noted the county might need to fund more jail beds if arrests increase.
Andrea Valderrama, a policy adviser to Wheeler, agreed crime is increasing, but wanted to hear bureau officials make the case for how the additional officers would be used.
"I'm not convinced or opposed to it," said Valderrama, a first-generation Peruvian-American who serves on the David Douglas School Board.
And architect Stuart Emmons wanted assurances the increase would allow the bureau to return to the kind of community policing practiced under former chief and mayor Tom Potter.
Emmons also opposed the tax increase, however, saying that it would hurt some businesses that already are struggling to make ends meet. Wheeler proposed increasing the tax from 2.2 to 2.6 percent, which would raise $15.3 million in its first year (see related story, page A6).
"We need to be more creative," said Emmons, who feared the tax increase would add to Portland's reputation as unfriendly to business.
Hardesty went even further, accusing Wheeler of proposing the increase to undermine support for an initiative petition she supports that would tax large businesses to fund clean energy projects. She predicted that increasing taxes on all businesses would discourage support for an additional increase on big ones.
"It was a slap in the face," said Hardesty, who called the proposal "a scheme" worked out behind closed doors with the PBA. The petition has not yet qualified for the ballot.
Wheeler's proposal is included in the next budget he has proposed that will be negotiated and approved by the current council. If it is authorized, the candidate who wins the election will have a say in how it is enacted, however. It takes years to hire police officers, and future councils will have to reauthorize the funding for the additional positions in future budgets.
All of the candidates gave similar reasons to justify their concerns about the Portland Police Bureau. They included the U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found it has a history of using excessive force against the mentally ill. All of the reforms in the settlement agreement with the city still have not been enacted.
The candidates also cited two recent audits that found Gang Enforcement Team officers disproportionately stop African-Americans without documenting the reasons or results. Hardesty was most critical of the team, saying it isn't supervised and does not even catch gang members, although the audit cited a number of arrests and successful prosecutions.
All also said the bureau needs to be reformed. When Emmons noted that none of them would be in charge of the bureau because the mayor is police commissioner, Smith replied, "Not yet."
The other big issues discussed were homelessness and affordable housing, which all said are connected. The candidates agreed the city needs to do more to reduce the number of people living on the streets and increase the supply of affordable housing, with Emmons being the most condemning. He said shelter space needs to be increased in the short run because it takes years to build new affordable housing projects. Emmons also said the cost of city-supported affordable housing needs to be cut in half from its current average of more than $200,000 per unit.
"Since the City Council declared a housing state of emergency three years ago, the situation has only gotten worse," Emmons said.
All candidates also agreed the Bureau of Development Services, which issues building permits, needs to be reformed because of how long it takes to get applications approved.
During their closing comments, Emmons stressed his previous work on affordable housing projects to say he would be the most qualified council member to solve the homeless crisis.
Hardesty cited her years of activism, especially on police accountability issues. Smith talked about working as an aide to Oregon U.S. Sen. Rob Wyden and serving on the Multnomah County Commission.
Vanderrama discussed her experience working in City Hall and serving on the David Douglas School Board. And Williams talked about the values she learning serving in the U.S. Air Force and years of volunteer work on Northwest neighborhood groups.