Is it time for the Portland Police Bureau to be replaced with something else?
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran is urging local officials to explore the idea of merging the beleaguered Police Bureau with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, effectively eliminating the city-only police force. The move comes amid historic unrest in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and protests and riots that have led to more than $9 million in overtime costs for the Portland police.
The discussions are preliminary, Meieran said. If the idea advances, it could look something like the much-publicized story of Camden, New Jersey, where local officials dissolved the local police force to replace it with a county agency in 2013 — saving money and overcoming an officers union that was widely viewed as an obstacle to needed reforms.
"I know there are challenges about this," Meieran said to her fellow city and county officials on the Local Public Safety Coordinating Committee in a remote meeting last week. "I know it has been discussed in the past. But there are tremendous benefits as well. And I think we at least need this to be part of our conversations, as we are re-envisioning justice."
Meieran's comment was first reported online by Willamette Week earlier this evening, Tuesday, Oct. 20. However, it's a lot more than just a one-off comment — people have been talking about it for years. And more recently those talks have been taking place behind the scenes at both the city and the county — though few details have been shared.
When he was chief of police in Portland, Mike Reese — now the elected Multnomah County sheriff — pushed hard for such a merger, only to be rebuffed by then-Sheriff Dan Staton.
Asked Monday about the idea, Mayor Ted Wheeler said he favors it. Having two overlapping policing systems means duplication of resources; both the city and county budgets are constrained, and cost-savings could happen; and blending the agencies would give area law enforcement a closer connection to the county's prosecutors and the jail.
But, he said, it would need the support of the community; especially the Black community. "This (proposal) is in the context of a national recognizing on racial justice and equity. We have to make sure the community is front and center on this conversation," Wheeler said.
Reese, for his part, has worked to be more cooperative with the police bureau since he took over as sheriff. Actually merging the two departments would be "complex," he told the Tribune.
The idea would face tremendous hurdles. The Portland Police Bureau employs about 900 officers, while the Sheriff's Office employs about 130 sworn law enforcement officers and more than 400 corrections deputies and managers. PPB reports to the city's Police Commissioner, who is currently Wheeler, while MCSO reports to an independently elected sheriff.
Wheeler said he's discussed such a merger with Reese and with Police Chief Chuck Lowell within the past couple of months.
Not only would the city and county charters need to be rewritten and subjected to a public vote, but they have separate union contracts that would need to be negotiated.
Portland Police Association head Daryl Turner told the Tribune that the idea would be incredibly complex, and could have potentially "catastrophic" consequences unless it is fully thought through.
Sgt. Matt Ferguson, head of the Multnomah County deputy sheriff's association, echoed Turner. He said he'd hate for such a change to affect his members' relationship with the people they serve.
But Wheeler hinted that the union might not be such an obstacle. That's because the police now answer to an elected civilian — the mayor — with no law enforcement background. But the sheriff's deputies answer to an elected lawman — Reese.
When asked about union opposition, Wheeler said, "You might be surprised. Talked to Daryl Turner."
Multnomah County Sheriff's Captain Derrick Peterson heads the Northwest chapter of NOBLE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
He echoed Ferguson, saying the sheriff's office, due to its low call-load and good relations with its community, is able to pursue traditional community policing more than officers can in the Portland Police Bureau, where staffing is comparatively low and call loads high.
It's possible that a new, merged agency could help provide a fresh start for law enforcement to engage in customer-service-oriented community policing in Portland city limits as well, but "It's hard to say," Peterson said. "It would be very interesing to see what it could look like."
A Portland cop who spoke on condition of anonymity said that transferring policing powers away from the city of Portland could save money and help morale, given a city council that many officers consider dysfunctional at best.
"It would make a lot of sense," the officer said
It's likely that the transfer would need to be accompanied by systems of oversight similar to what Portland has, many observers said.
Changes to the count charter and state law also could allow the sheriff to be replaced with a civilian commission similar to what's found in other cities — an idea that a Pacific University professor, Paul Snell, has been floating locally since this summer. Mayors and city councils are generalists balancing many issues, and rarely are granted the time necessary to actively oversee a police department, he argues.
"They do not have the time to get that type of level of detail of governance," he told the Portland Tribune in July.
Not a new solution
The idea of a city-county police merger has a long history in greater Portland.
• In 1974, after an in-depth study of creating 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 did note that collaboration would lead to savings.
• In 2006, the county Board of Commissioners supported a pooled law-enforcement budget in pursuit of efficiencies. However, the idea never went anywhere.
• In March 2013, under Reese, the Portland Police Bureau prepared a confidential white paper supporting consolidation and shared it at a meeting between Reese, Mayor Charlie Hales, County Chair Jeff Cogen and Sheriff Dan Staton. It did not proceed.
•In January 2017, Wheeler told the Portland Tribune he wanted to look at possible consolidation of city and county law enforcement, including of patrol services.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran said the idea just makes too much sense.
"I mean, the county already has virtually all of the community safety systems under its purview," she said, citing the jail, the courts and probation. "Having the police bureau, one agency, that's not included and accountable within this framework makes it more difficult to coordinate a meaningful system of public safety."
State Rep. Janelle Bynum, who has been a leader on police reform, said "I think the devil would be in the details, right? ... You can shift people and resources all you want. But if you don't fix the problems, you haven't fixed anything? No. And you have to, you have to put things on a firm foundation, and that has to be based on public trust. It has to be based on a respect for the workers. It has to be based on competent leadership. ... I wouldn't say that leadership that we have now is incompetent. What I would say is that it hasn't been stable. And that stability counts for something."
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has been spearheading reforms at the city level, was noncommittal about the idea. "I appreciate Commissioner Meieran's engagement in reimaging what community safety can look like. What we have currently does not work for everyone and I look forward to working with my colleagues at all levels of government to build a more equitable approach to safety for our communities"
Multnomah County Chair Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, asked about the idea in August, sounded skeptical.
"…if the public were to come forward and people would say … that the county would do a better job, I think we would take a look at it," she told the Tribune. "I don't know that there's a magic wand and the Multnomah County taking over is going to solve the problems ... I'm not sure that that a county takeover of police would solve the problems."
Dan Handelman, a volunteer with Portland Copwatch, said much the same thing. "What I've read from community activists on the ground in Camden is that they dismantled the whole police force and put it back together, and it's still a police force," he said. "So I don't know that they solved any problems there."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.