Gresham police, community rally as officer exodus grows
Hundreds in Gresham are "united for safety" as a troubling trend continues to plague local public safety — officers are transferring out of the police department in droves, leaving behind an overworked group stretched to their breaking point.
And it all came to a head Tuesday afternoon, July 19, as more than 200 off-duty officers, family members, business leaders and community members wearing matching shirts emblazoned with "Gresham United for Safety" marched into Gresham City Council Chambers to voice the need to better retain and recruit a dwindling force.
"We aren't asking council to figure everything out by themselves," said Tommy Walker, president of the Gresham Police Officers' Association. "We are all here today because we care."
Gresham is currently down 19 sworn officers, with an additional 15 attempting lateral moves to the Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. The gaps within the force have left a dwindling department forced to consolidate services and push officers to their limits with overtime.
A fully budgeted force would be 129 officers for a Gresham community of more than 115,000. In the next few months Gresham could be below 100 officers, the first time that has happened in more than two decades.
The departures, which the Gresham Police Officers' Association has described as "catastrophic," have led to the department reassigning all available officers away from heralded programs to serve patrol and investigations.
"This is no longer just a crisis, it's a catastrophe," said Detective Adam Wright. "Homicides or child abuse — which of those do we give up on in the coming weeks?"
Gone are the School Resource Officers, Traffic Unit, Neighborhood Enforcement Team and Transit Division. Other programs like the Mental Health Team and Child Abuse Team have been described as on "life support," while the K9 Officer team is now shared regionally. There are no officers dedicated to curbing dangerous driving, nor is there any follow-up on property crimes or assaults.
"Our community and victims deserve better," said Officer Malaka Kerbs, who has worked in Gresham for 18 years. "We want to return to being a fully-staffed police department."
"This is a call to action to solve the lack of public safety in the city of Gresham," Kerbs implored Gresham's elected officials.
According to the police in attendance of the council meeting, In the last six months there have been 206 burglaries in Gresham, zero of which have had a follow-up investigation; 76 domestic violence cases, only five have been assigned to detectives; 596 vehicles stolen, none assigned for investigation; and 1,129 child abuse cases (97%) referred by third-party organizations or community members that have gone without investigation.
There has also been a spree of shootings. In 2020 there were 108 reported shootings, and in 2021 a further 175 shootings. So far this year there have been 150 shootings reported, and 557 bullet casings found in the streets.
"The city of Gresham has a worse per-capita homicide rate than the city of Los Angeles this year," said Detective Justin Boyd. "This is not a sustainable model moving forward."
Right now it is typical for the Gresham Police Department to have six to seven officers on duty during day and night shifts. And every officer that leaves accounts for 2,080 hours of overtime for the remaining force, which adds to the strain and compounds all these issues driving folks away.
"Recruitment and retention is a top priority for the city and me," said Chief Travis Gullberg. "Community safety is important and we are struggling with staffing."
The city has pointed to a lack of funding in the past two decades that has contributed to these current problems.
Right now 90% of Gresham's General Fund goes toward public safety, and $49 million goes directly to the Police Department — up $8 million from last year. In comparison, both Beaverton and Hillsboro, which are smaller municipalities, have nearly $50 million more in their General Funds.
"I care about our police officers and our community," said Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall. "We don't have enough of a budget to adequately fund our police and fire."
Gresham voters continue to be lukewarm toward any new taxes or fees to bolster the force — a survey conducted by the city in January deterred leadership from bothering to put a public safety levy ask on the November ballot.
"We have to find a way to fix this problem," Stovall said.
Gresham officers have cited a bevy of reasons for leaving, from better pay to more career opportunities to a lack of support from city leadership. Because of similar staffing woes in the City Hall human resources department, Gresham has not been conducting exit surveys with the departing officers.
While many are pessimistic about what the coming weeks will look like within the Gresham Police Department, some remain dedicated to finding solutions.
"We all got into this profession because we want to keep the community safe," said Officer Dan Tatro, vice president of the police union. "We are here to keep people safe. We want that livability for our community."
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