EDITOR: A visit with Portland's Deputy Chief of Police
We have a City Council in Portland that is composed of five individuals – "Commissioners" of various public services in the city – none of whom is required to represent a specific section of the city. Historically, Portland east of the Willamette River – and especially east of S.E. 82nd Avenue of Roses – has been under-represented on the City Council, and in recent years few Commissioners have even made public appearances in East Portland – with the prominent exceptions of the late Nick Fish and the recently-retired Amanda Fritz.
Some members of the City Council have been quite hostile to our police, and funding for the Portland Police Bureau has been sharply cut in the recent past. But, as the number of officers has declined, and as the resources available to the police department have been shriveling, crime has been rising. As we and many others have pointed out, gun crimes which had been rising along with the pandemic suddenly shot through the roof when the City Council disbanded the Gun Violence Reduction Team – and have stayed ridiculously high for months. In December, Mayor Wheeler asked Police Chief Lovell to come up with a plan to address all the gun violence, albeit without further resources being available to help the Chief to do it. The Chief presented a plan at Christmastime; it was adopted, but it turns out that it just increased investigative resources, with nothing added to address prevention.
Meantime, the Portland Police Bureau continues to try to do more with less, and the city's Deputy Chief of Police has been on a mission to keep the Bureau connected with the people it serves. In the September, 2020, BEE, we reported on a socially-distanced meeting at Mt. Scott's "Community Connections Center" in which Deputy Chief Chris Davis answered questions from Inner Southeast residents.
On February 3, Davis was the primary guest at the "first Wednesday evening of the month" General Meeting of SMILE, the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League neighborhood association. The meeting was conducted online via ZOOM, as all SMILE meetings have been since the middle of last March. A summary of what has happened at these meetings each month appears in the paid newsletter on the bottom of this very page in THE BEE, but the February 3rd talk was so relevant to the current concerns of the residents of Portland east of the river which we have been reporting on recently that we felt it deserved more prominence on this page. Here is a summary of that appearance by Deputy Chief Chris Davis:
He began by discussing what he termed the city's two pressing issues. The first is the startling rise of gun violence in the city – although, he added, the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood has been pretty unique in having almost entirely escaped this rise – so far. He reported that there had been over 100 "shots fired" incidents in the city, and 10 gun-violence deaths, just in January of 2021 (he added that even in "bad years" in Portland in the past, there were no more than about 30 gun deaths in the entire year). He and Chief Chuck Lovell submitted a plan to the Mayor before Christmas, to address this problem, at the Mayor's request.
The second pressing issue is the persistent civil unrest in the city; it has receded during the winter, but probably will be resurgent when spring arrives, he said.
Adding to the difficulty in addressing both issues is Portland's extremely low staffing level of sworn officers – 917 positions, as of today, compared with 1,040 in 1998 when Portland had a significantly fewer residents (a population equivalent to the City of Salem has been added to Portland since then, yet there are substantially fewer sworn officers now). 109 officers have departed the Portland Police Bureau since July 1 of last year – and 36 of those were not retirements – simply officers leaving Portland to serve somewhere else. 825 of the 917 currently authorized positions are filled as of today, and the PPB does not have the budget to fill any more of the authorized positions until at least the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. This is a big problem when fulfilling calls for service, said Davis. Officers assigned to dedicated teams, such as the Traffic Division, K-9 service, etc., have been reassigned to routine patrol duties. But, he added, nonetheless it has been necessary to add resources to investigate violent crimes, to meet gun violence investigation requirements. After those observations, he invited questions.SMILE President Simon Fulford asked if last year's rise in violence and gun violence had not been a national phenomenon, due to COVID-19, and the recession accompanying the pandemic. Davis agreed that the rise in violence may be COVID-related – and a rise in high-speed traffic violations spiked in parallel with it, here and elsewhere, he added. But, he said, the gun violence rose higher, faster, in three cities – when each one reduced funding for the police, and "gun violence reduction" teams were disbanded in each. The three cities were Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis – and these crimes did not spike as much in other major cities, so that may be a factor in it too.
Fulford asked if there are any other sources that could be tapped for additional funding for our police. Davis said no – the city lost much of its own general funding sources with the arrival of the pandemic, and so no more money is available for the police. Finally, Fulford asked if we are really having a lot more low-level crime here now, or is it just our perception. Davis replied "it's a shift – there are fewer residential burglaries, because more people are home all the time; but, here, you're getting hammered on business burglaries, car crimes, and car theft."SMILE Board Member Juliana James thanked the Portland Police for an incident she was personally aware of when officers protected a park full of kids playing soccer from violent demonstrators, and she asked how we can help with "all the unrest". Deputy Chief Davis thanked her for the question, and responded by saying that the Portland Police Department is "way ahead of most cities" in dealing with its own social justice issues, "but we still need to do a lot of work". However, he shared, a "fairly small group of people" have hijacked social justice protests to physically attack police and others, and to commit crimes, some of them serious. "We have to clearly distinguish between these two situations." He pointed out that after violent demonstrators had boxed in North Precinct and had tried to set it on fire when they knew there were people inside, the following night a counter protest by those seeking social justice but who repudiate violence had taken place at the same location.SMILE Public Safety Committee Chairperson Corless asked Davis if the Milwaukie Police cooperate with Portland Police near their mutual border, as she has heard. Davis responded, "Yes, Milwaukie is a big help. And without the Multnomah County Sheriff's Department and the Oregon State Police, we in Portland would be in a difficult spot", because "other neighboring cities don't want to send their officers here", due to safety concerns.Corless asked how we, in the neighborhoods, can better cooperate with the police? Davis responded, "Two ways – be heard at City Council; and get to know your local cops." He said the dialogue in City Council chambers tends to be dominated by small but very organized groups whose agenda seems to vary considerably from what a broader number of local citizens care about – so, he said, "be heard". One of the ways police know they still have much support from residents of the city is the large number of supportive personal messages, and even food, received at the police precincts – and our local police really appreciate even casual indications of support amidst what has been a rather discouraging atmosphere lately emanating from some in City Hall.And with that, SMILE President Simon Fulford thanked Davis for his frankness and openness, and for having given the neighborhood his time at the meeting.
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