Portland police chief asks city to reduce police cuts to fill more than 100 vacancies
Chief Chuck Lovell is asking for a budget cut of just 1%, not the full 5% that the mayor directed each city bureau to consider
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland’s police chief is asking the city to cut his budget by just 1%, or $3.4 million from current spending, not the full 5% reduction that the mayor directed each city bureau to consider.
The Police Bureau would use the money to begin to fill more than 100 vacancies, Chief Chuck Lovell said.
Without it, according to the budget proposal, “the bureau will be unable to afford hiring into any of these 100+ vacant positions for the entirety of the year, and likely forever unless other ongoing funding can be secured to cover position costs.”
The bureau currently has 92 officer and 44 civilian employee vacancies for a total of 136. It is authorized to have 916 sworn officers, police officials said.
The requested $226.9 million police budget for the fiscal year that begins in July marks a slight drop from this year’s $230 million spending plan.
The 5% reduction requested by Mayor Ted Wheeler would cut at least $10.1 million and would set the bureau back significantly, Lovell said in his proposal.
It would mean a reduced police force as the bureau continues to struggle with slower response times to emergency calls, Lovell said.
Wheeler, the city’s police commissioner, didn’t signal what he thinks of the budget proposal.
“There’s no secret the mayor has concerns about the available resources of the Police Bureau and wants to find ways so we can be responsible to the community’s safety concerns,” said Jim Middaugh, Wheeler’s spokesman. “He has just received the proposal and will consider it as part of a citywide analysis.”
Lovell and other police officials will go before the City Council for budget review over the next several months. City commissioners and the mayor identified the development of a new model for public safety as among their top priorities for the next budget cycle.
But they have offered few details of what they would do, except the mayor saying last month he won’t revive the police Gun Violence Reduction Team. The city recorded 55 homicides last year, the most in 26 years. There have been approximately 105 shootings and six gun-related killings so far this year, police said.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who had pushed for deeper cuts to the bureau’s budget last year, said she’s against providing any additional money to the bureau until the community decides how public safety should be reimagined in the city.
“I have no intentions of putting more money into the Portland Police Bureau until we have a shared vision of what transformation looks like,” Hardesty said.
She said the bureau has historically used its savings from police vacancies as a “slush fund” to pay for other programs and she’s opposed to that.
“I want the police to only do the job they’re hired to do and that is to solve crime. The chief has the ability to assign his officers anywhere he thinks he needs them,” she said. “We will rebuild the bureau, but we will only rebuild when we know what we’re rebuilding.”
A record number of police officers have retired or simply left this year.
From July 1 through Feb. 3, 110 officers have left, including 73 who retired and 37 who resigned, according to Ken Lee, the bureau’s senior business operations manager.
The chief’s proposal follows a momentous year of racial justice demonstrations and protests against police brutality spurred by the videotaped death of George Floyd, a Black man who lost consciousness after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.
Facing community calls for defunding police, Portland’s City Council in June cut $15 million from the bureau by eliminating three specialty units, including the Gun Violence Reduction Team, school resource officers and transit police.
That was above $11.8 million in general fund reductions that mayor had previously directed the bureau to take for this fiscal year, achieved partly through vacancy savings and elimination of the body worn camera program.
A 12-member community advisory committee for the Police Bureau analyzed the budget and noted the bureau has had a hiring freeze since June.
“Drastic funding cuts to a wide range of PPB programs and operations, without sufficient strategies to address immediate and long-term consequences, has established a foundation for instability in PPB budgeting,” the advisory group wrote to the mayor and council members.
While the bureau has sought to improve community engagement and diversity among its ranks, the advisory group wrote: “The current fiscal crisis has forced most of these measures to be cut or eliminated. This not only negatively impacts PPB’s progress on these initiatives in FY2021-22, it also jeopardizes PPB’s long-term ability to rebuild community trust and to meet and sustain its stated goals in these important areas.”
Police response times increased last summer, largely due to reduced staff and officers pulled from patrol to do protest coverage, bureau officials wrote in their proposal.
The average police response to high-priority calls increased to 16.4 minutes last August but dropped to an average of 10.4 minutes in December. That still remains higher than the 8.2- minute average in January 2020 for high-priority calls.
As planned, the bureau on Thursday will start pulling 32 officers from six police specialty units to help fill patrol shifts across its three precincts and reduce overtime.
“However, if the bureau does not have the funding to maintain patrol staffing levels by hiring new officers to replace departing officers, response times will likely return to slower levels of service,” the budget proposal said.
How the bureau would recruit new officers is unclear, as it lost its three-member recruiting team – the lead recruiter resigned and two officers were placed back on patrol. Police also have fewer investigators to check into prospective recruits’ backgrounds – seven, down from 18.
The personnel division doesn’t have the recruiting ability beyond “social media and Bureau of Human Resources advertising,” the budget proposal said.
To improve accountability, the advisory committee recommended police require officers to once again display their names on their uniforms and equip officers with body cameras.
Police leaders faced criticism last June when they allowed officers to remove name tags during protests and replace them with tape containing six-digit employee numbers that were difficult to read. The bureau then pledged to stencil large three-digit numbers on officers’ helmets by mid-November for easier identification during protests. The bureau has added the three-digit numbers to helmets by velcro, Lt. Greg Pashley said.
Police officials said the name tag decision was made out of concern for the personal safety of officers following doxing — the release and distribution of personal information.
Two federal judges have urged body cameras for Portland police. The city has discussed the program for years with little traction.
The city previously set aside $834,619 in one-time appropriation and $1.8 million in ongoing funding for body cameras, but the mayor in April eliminated the money due to a forecasted city deficit amid the pandemic and other higher priorities.
Hardesty remains opposed to body-worn cameras for police if they’re allowed to view the footage before they write their reports, arguing that personal cell phone video from the public is more effective in capturing any police wrongdoing.
Officer Brian Hunzeker, president of the Portland Police Association, said the bureau is already losing prospective recruits because of the bureau’s hiring freeze.
“They’re going to other agencies because we can’t afford to put them on the books,” he said.
He also said he doesn’t expect the use of traffic officers, canine officers and others pulled to fill patrol shifts will reduce response times significantly.
That’s because, he said, they’re not adding to patrol but trying to maintain minimum precinct staffing without calling in off-duty officers on overtime to fill the shifts, he said.
Protest-related overtime covering July 1 through Dec. 23 was $4.3 million, represented 59,500 officer hours, according to Lee.
Overall police overtime costs are expected to reach from $13 million to $15 million by the end of this fiscal year, including for backfilling vacant patrol shifts, Lee said.
As part of its budget request, the bureau has requested about $10 million in overtime for next fiscal year.
The union is urging the bureau to bring back the retire-rehire program that former Chief Jami Resch halted because of its expense. It was more costly due to the rehired veteran officers earning higher pay than new hires.
The program allows a retiree who was hired before 2008 to retire and then be hired back within days and remain on the force for up to two years for detectives or sergeants, or six years for officers. While the retiree would be paid at a higher rate than a new recruit, they could immediately hit the streets in uniform.
Now, the bureau waits about 18 months before a new hire is trained.
The city’s budget office will review the police proposal and the City Council will schedule a work session to examine it in March. The mayor’s proposed budget is expected on April 29, with the council adopting next year’s spending plan in June.
(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)