Poll: Most Portland residents want police presence maintained or increased
Three-fourths of Portland-area residents say they don't want to see policing in the city dip below its current levels, with a plurality supporting an increase in cops
By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh
PORTLAND, Ore. — Nearly a year after “defund the police” became a racial justice rallying cry in Portland and across the U.S., a vast majority of Portlanders and those living in the metro area reject the call to diminish police presence in the city.
Three-fourths of Portland-area residents say they do not want to see policing in the city dip below its current levels, with a plurality supporting an increase in cops, according to a recent poll commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Meanwhile, fewer than a quarter of survey participants in Portland — and even less among suburban residents — believe there should be fewer police officers.
The findings come as activists and some civic leaders in Portland continue to demand further reductions to policing and as the mayor and the city council work to re-imagine the city’s public safety system. People age 34 and younger were more likely than their elders to favor a decreased police presence, but most still favored maintaining or expanding their ranks, the poll conducted by DHM Research found.
Survey participant Brandon Lane, 61, said it made sense to beef up the city’s police force amid a dramatic surge in shootings, a homelessness and addiction crisis and a downtown battered by a pandemic and months of destructive protests.
“I’m not sure that it needs to be drastically higher,” the Northeast Portland resident told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “But if we defund or reduce the headcount any further, we’re likely to be inviting bigger problems.”
At the same time, Lane said he believes officers too often respond to situations they are ill-equipped to handle, such as a person in crisis, and favors increases in social services to help those is need.
“That’s the compassionate thing to try and do,” he said. “That would also free the police to do the things they’re supposed to do.”
Lane’s concerns surrounding further police cuts in Portland mirror those of many of the 600 people in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington and Clark counties who took the survey conducted from April 30 to May 6.
People living in Portland were oversampled, with 300 taking the poll, but results were adjusted to reflect the view across the metro area.
Forty-two percent of Portland residents said they wanted to see an increase in police while another 30% said they preferred staffing to remain at their current levels, the poll found. Among suburban residents, those figures were 50% and 24%, respectively.
Just 24% of Portlanders said they wanted to see fewer police in their city, while that number plummeted to 15% across the rest of the metro area, according to the poll.
Overall, 18% of those who identified as a person of color supported decreasing the number of police in Portland while 14% of participants who identified as white did. The poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points suggests that may not be a statistically meaningful difference.
“Residents want to be safe and protected and they don’t have that feeling right now,” said Daryl Turner, the executive director of the Portland Police Association, the union that represents the city’s rank-and-file officers.
But, he said, with the City Council having trimmed the police budget by $15 million last summer, “This message is clearly not being heard by Portland’s elected leaders, who only listen to those who talk the loudest.”
Ahead of that vote, several hundred people testified to the council over more than five hours, heavily favoring steeper cuts to police. The budget cut also followed amid an eruption of racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.
The cuts included disbanding police units long criticized for targeting people of color at disproportionate levels, including those that worked in schools, investigated gun violence and patrolled the regional public transit system.
While an attempt to reduce the city’s police budget by an additional $18 million failed to garner enough votes in the fall, the City Council has since shown that it wants to buck the public safety status quo.
Last month, it rejected a plan crafted by the police bureau and some longtime Black leaders — and initially supported by Mayor Ted Wheeler — to provide $2 million to bring back a uniformed police team tasked with stopping record shootings in the city. Instead, it opted to give more than $4 million to community organizations focused on those most impacted by gun violence.
Meanwhile, the city is also poised to pour millions of additional dollars into an experimental new program to dispatch a non-police response to people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis.
“I appreciate this feedback showing that investing in police and the public safety system as a whole continues to be a priority for the community,” Wheeler said in a statement Monday in response to the poll results. “The issue of accountable policing and public safety can be both controversial and difficult to do it right.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, an outspoken police critic who has championed cuts to the bureau, said in response to the poll findings, “It is imperative that all Portlanders voices are heard, even when we disagree.”
“At the end of the day the city does need to determine appropriate police staffing levels,” Hardesty said in a statement. “But more importantly we need to decide how to keep Portlanders safe.”
In their statements, both Wheeler and Hardesty touted their work on the city’s police bureau budget for next year, which the council unanimously passed last week.
Under the plan, the police bureau would accelerate hiring 30 new officers to counterbalance anticipated attrition over the next two years. It would also add 22 community safety officers — unarmed support staff who can respond to low priority calls.
As of February, the bureau had 93 officer vacancies and another 40 non-sworn vacancies.
Police haven’t hired any new officers for the last nine months and may not hire any by the end of this fiscal year in June because of the earlier cuts, according to the city’s budget office.
A pair of amendments added to the budget by Hardesty will prohibit Portland police from spending the $5.2 million earmarked for the new officers on anything other than those hires and require the bureau to evaluate the effectiveness of the community safety officers.
“The Police Bureau has the least amount of sworn personnel in modern history,” said Lt. Greg Pashley, a Portland police spokesman. “While there is a call to re-envision public safety and not have police respond to certain calls for service, until those models are fully operational, most of those calls are still sent to police.”
Overall, next year’s city budget will cut an additional $3 million from the Portland Police Bureau. That would represent a 1.4% decrease in bureau spending compared to its current budget.
Desire Cage, 33, said she’d like to see it cut even more.
“It all comes down to the way they treat African Americans,” said Cage, a Black woman who lives near Northeast Alberta Street and 20th Avenue and participated in the poll.
In an interview, she recalled how a Portland police officer once questioned whether her husband lived in their neighborhood and refused to let him enter the couple’s apartment after a shooting occurred on their block.
Another time, Cage said, officers stopped her as she walked home from an evening shift at a diner, searched through her bag and then told her she shouldn’t be out on the street so late at night. She was still wearing her restaurant uniform.
“That kind of stuff happens all the time. It’s just terrifying,” Cage said, adding that learning about the extent of anti-Black violence by police in the U.S. over the last year has made her even more wary.
“If I see a Black person handcuffed on the curb, I now ask, ‘Do I need to start recording?’” Cage said. “You never know what’s going to happen to a Black person questioned by police.”
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