How many cops is too few or too many?
Update: This article has been expanded to include more detail.
Two members of the Portland City Council want to further cut the Portland Police Bureau. But how small is too small, and how big is too big?
Earlier this year, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty spearheaded cuts to the Portland police budget of $15 million.
Now Hardesty and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly are pushing for another $18 million in cuts, with the support of civil rights activists like Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
Singh points to racial disparities in traffic stops and arrests, as well as numerous protest-related misconduct complaints. He said police spending comes at a cost to other services, and the city should "deconstruct and dismantle as much as we can, and then build (the bureau) back up in a way that actually serves the community."
The push for more cuts comes after months of local protests of racial inequities and police violence, and graffiti around town calling, not for cuts or reforms, but for police to be abolished altogether.
Calls to cut police budgets have occurred elsewhere, but have largely foundered, according to a recent Associated Press article. If the new cuts in Portland go through, the total cuts of $33 million would amount to roughly 16 percent of the budget. The actual reduction on paper is lower, since the cuts are measured against a budget that would have grown much faster due to cost-of-living adjustments.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell and the union representing officers, the Portland Police Association, have pushed back on the cuts, saying funding is needed to fight crime and to allow the reforms and community-oriented policing that the public prefers.
Already a city budget report shows that the bureau has been overspending its budget, in part due to protest-related costs. Although Eudaly has noted the proposed line item reductions ostensibly do not cut the current number of cops, the proposal does cut budget and vacancies. That, in turn, means a cut to the number of sworn officers likely would result. That's because the bureau uses the money from vacancies to pay expenses and cover unexpected costs— as it's doing this year. Bureau insiders say vacant positions are needed because they let the bureau to hire up to prepare for impending retirements.
Indeed, Hardesty has said the specific line items are irrelevant, since the bureau can adjust its budget as desired. She and Eudaly say the funds diverted from police can go to provide food to needy Portlanders, and eviction assistance.
The City Council will hold a hearing on Hardesty's and Eudaly's proposal on the afternoon of Wed., Oct. 28, and vote on it next Thursday, Nov. 5.
So how many police officers is too many?
City has fewer cops
Currently, Portland has 873 officers and 44 vacancies. That compares to 962 sworn police of all ranks in 2013, 908 in 2016, and 889 officers last year, according to data reported to the federal government.
Compared to other cities on the basis of population, that's not a lot. In 2016, a survey by Governing Magazine found that Portland, then with 908 officers — 14.1 officers per 10,000 population — had about 29% fewer cops than Seattle. Compared with all cities with more than 500,000 people, Portland had 42% fewer cops per capita.
Last year, Portland's number of officers dropped to 889 even as the city's population grew. In contrast, in the same three-year span in Seattle, the number of officers grew from 1,384 to 1,416.
Experts and activists, however, say the ratio of officers per capita is irrelevant. The number of officers, they say, should reflect crime rates, workload and community expectations of public safety — such as the time it takes to respond to high-priority 911 calls, including for violent crimes.
Over the last two decades, crime rates have generally gone down in Portland, as they have all across the country. The big exceptions this year include shootings and homicides. Since last year, the city has seen a rash of shootings that police describe as likely gang-related. This year the city is on course for well over 40 homicides — the highest number in years.
Police officials have said that the victims of the violence have been disproportionately people of color. Of the 38 individuals who were shot in July in the city of Portland, 25 were African American, four were Hispanic and nine were white, Lovell said in an August press conference.
"Black people are overrepresented heavily on the victim side," he said.
In reporting for Unequal Justice, a 2017 series of articles by the journalism nonprofit InvestigateWest and the Portland Tribune, police and activists agreed that the bureau's focus on shootings and gang violence, as well as the bias of 911 callers in the city, likely contributes to many of the disparities that show up in criminal justice figures locally.
At the time, then—Captain Kevin Modica noted that the police come at the end of "a cascading tumble" of systems and issues that tend to disproportionately affect people of color, including poverty, poor schools, and a lack of family support — the latter often exacerbated by prison disparities.
Hardesty last year spearheaded the push to emulate successful programs in Eugene and elsewhere to respond to some 911 calls with non-police personnel, a project called Portland Street Reponse.
Response times suffer
In August of this year, Chief Lovell blamed nightly clashes following protests for dramatically draining police patrol staffing, and for boosting the time it takes to respond to high-priority 911 calls.
According to the bureau's website, response times for high-priority calls — often violent crimes, sometimes in progress — over the last 12 months have averaged about 10 minutes.
The Portland bureau's past goal was to respond in less than five minutes to high-priority emergency calls.
"Wow," said former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, when told of the current number. Stamper, now affiliated with the reform-minded nonprofit Law Enforcement Action Partnership, has been vocal in criticizing police response to Black Lives Matter protests and has called for limiting the role of police, such as by legalizing drugs.
Stamper said it's not surprising that the budget drain caused by protest response is boosting those response times. He recommended looking at past years for a better gauge of police staffing.
Between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, the average response time was about eight minutes — about the same as it was the year before.
Since July 1 of this year, the average response time to high-priority 911 calls has grown to 14 minutes.
Stamper said eight-minute response times like Portland has had in the past years are not uncommon. But ideally, on true emergency calls, "if you're looking at a standard for a big city, you want somebody there within two or three minutes."
He said the complexity of determining appropriate police staffing "can be staggering." But he said it should be worked through in a full community discussion that gets into the details of what police do and where they are needed.
"I think it's utterly foolish to cut a certain dollar figure, or to cut a certain number of officers without thinking about the public safety demands," he said.
Among the cuts Hardesty and Eudaly have proposed is all funding used by the Special Emergency Reaction Team — Portland's version of SWAT.
All full-time positions reserved for team members were cut earlier this year.
The new proposal means that if the bureau needs to find money to keep the team going, it would have to find it elsewhere.
In 1984, Stamper responded to the massacre of 21 people and wounding of 19 more at a McDonald's in a San Diego when he worked for that city's police department. He said it was crucial having trained cops and snipers — one of whom eventually killed the shooter.
While there's nuance in the debate around police gang teams, he said, the idea of disbanding special response teams "makes no sense."
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