Portland mayor calls for funds to rehire retired police officers amid crime spike

Portland PD had ended its retire-rehire program last year because it’s more expensive to bring back veteran officers


By Maxine Bernstein
oregonlive.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — As shootings continue to soar in Portland and homicides have reached the highest level in more than two decades, Mayor Ted Wheeler on Friday called for more money to allow police to rehire officers who have recently retired to address the bureau’s staffing shortage.

Wheeler also called for a citywide expansion of Portland Street Response to reduce the number of calls police must handle. Along that effort, he said he expected to ask for a significant funding increase to allow non-emergency calls to be diverted from the 911 emergency dispatch system to an alternate line, the city’s 311 program.

In addition , Wheeler said he intends to seek money to set aside in reserve for equipping officers with body-worn cameras.

Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner, and Police Chief Chuck Lovell estimated 80 officers will be eligible to retire and could return to work this year.

Bringing back retirees ensures officers can be put on street patrols or help target gun violence immediately “as well as prevent burnout amongst our current officers,” Wheeler said.

The remarks from Wheeler and Lovell come just a month before the City Council will consider budget adjustment proposals this fall. The mayor hasn’t yet provided the exact amount of money he’ll seek to boost the Police Bureau’s budget. He said expects to learn how much money will be available for the budget adjustments by the end of this month.

“Last March, when I worked with the Interfaith Peace and Action (Collaborative) and other community leaders to propose a gun violence reduction plan, I said we needed to act then so that we would have the time to prepare for what looked like a deadly summer ahead. We’ve been living that summer,” Wheeler said. “The city is on a trend to have its deadliest year in decades. And while urban gun violence is impacting cities throughout the United States, we are not other cities. This is our home and we need to do better here.”

The city has recorded 64 homicides so far this year, including three fatal shootings by police. Of those, 46 resulted from shootings.

As of Thursday, 886 shootings have occurred throughout the city this year, with 283 people either killed or injured by gunshots. In the past 12 months, police have recorded 1,229 shootings, up significantly from the 656 shootings reported the preceding 12 months.

The bureau has been losing officers much faster than it can hire new recruits, and this year is expecting another large wave of retirements.

Since the start of the year, the chief and the mayor have urged support for a rehiring program to address the bureau’s staffing shortage, but the council didn’t approve it in this fiscal year’s budget.

The Police Bureau now has 122 sworn officer vacancies. There are currently 794 sworn officers, including 59 who are in training, of an authorized strength of 916.

Hiring new officers has been difficult, with fewer state police basic academies offered during the pandemic. The bureau also lost its three-member recruiting team last fiscal year — the lead recruiter resigned and two officers were placed back on patrol to fill shifts. Police also had the number of background investigators who check into applicants’ personal histories reduced to seven from 18, according to police.

So far this year, 40 officers have retired. Last year, 56 retired. Additionally, another 71 officers left this year, either through resignations or failure to complete their probationary period, according to the bureau.

In exit interviews, a few retirees said they would have stayed if the bureau still had a retire-rehire program to return for two to six years. The bureau eliminated the program last year because it’s more expensive to bring back veteran officers who make more money.

City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who rejected the mayor’s additional funding for the Police Bureau earlier this year, now is vigorously calling for more police resources and this week said he wants to see a 20% reduction in gun violence in the next 15 months.

“Pretending gangs do not exist devalues Black lives,” Mapps said in a prepared statement. “33.6% of homicide victims were Black males last fiscal year, while we make up roughly 3% of the population. At this point, it is disingenuous to deny that the Portland Police Bureau and law enforcement have a crucial role to play.”

Wheeler was reluctant to set such a specific shooting reduction goal but said he’s committed to reducing shootings in the city through enhanced enforcement and community-based outreach and support. “We won’t see the results without the investments, and without the strategies at the street level,” he said.

The City Council last year eliminated the Police Bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Unit, which was geared to proactively target gun violence but criticized for its disproportionate stops of people of color. The city disbanded the unit without providing an immediate alternative.

The mayor in the spring endorsed creating a similar team of uniformed officers to identify and go after the most frequent suspected shooters – with a new layer of community oversight in the form of a citizen group to track its performance.

But the Police Bureau doesn’t expect the team of 12 officers led by two sergeants to be operating until late November.

Few officers had volunteered for the team earlier this year. Some officers said they were uncertain about the oversight group’s expectations and concerned they wouldn’t get city support, Assistant Chief Jami Resch has said.

The Police Bureau decided instead to identify supervisors of the team first, appointing acting Lt. Ken Duilio to oversee the new team, under the command of Capt. James Crooker and Cmdr. Art Nakamura.

Five officers have now applied for the team’s two sergeant positions. Police and two members of the community oversight group will be interviewing the five next Tuesday, and selections are expected by the end of next week. The community oversight group and police then plan to post a new job description for officers for the new team in late September.

Lovell said he chose not to assign or appoint officers to the new team because he wanted to allow for the community group’s input in light of the past experiences with the now defunct Gang Enforcement and Gun Violence Reduction teams.

“We take public safety seriously in the city. It is painful to see community members injured and shot and wounded by gunfire in our streets, and we’re doing everything we can on our part to get the Focused Intervention Team up and running,” Lovell said. “We’re out there working with the resources we have. We’re looking at ways to add more, and we really want people to feel safe and be able to go out in the community, and not worry about gun violence.”

He added that police have recovered 800 firearms so far this year. Last year, the bureau took 866 guns off the street.

The expansion of Portland Street Response is anticipated to help reduce the number of low-priority calls Portland police must respond to, representing roughly 40% of the bureau’s calls, according to police. Street Response sends a paramedic and a social worker to people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis if there’s no weapon involved in the call. It was launched in February, limited to the Lents neighborhood.

Separately, the city is facing complaints from 911 callers who sit on hold for minutes, instead of seconds, before their emergency calls are picked up.

During a shooting at a restaurant in the Pearl District earlier this month, people calling 911 to report the shootout and other emergencies in the following half-hour waited an average of more than 7.5 minutes before a dispatcher answered, far above the national standard of picking up 911 calls in 15 to 20 seconds.

Bob Cozzie, the director of the city’s Bureau of Emergency Communications, said a 20% to 45% increase, depending on the week, in the volume of 911 calls received is unsustainable. He said he’d like to see all non-emergency calls transferred to the 311 program line, but the program’s staff answer the line only on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The 311 system is designed to provide callers with a single contact to find information on city and government services.

“We need relief in sight by next summer or we’ll be burning people out so drastically,” Cozzie said of his staff.

Michelle Kunec-North, the 311 program manager, told city officials earlier this week that about 60,000 of an estimated 500,000 non-emergency calls could be absorbed by the 311 line by the end of the fiscal year, which would be next June. She said the 311 program would need at least 10 to 15 more staff to absorb all non-emergency calls on a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week basis.

On body cameras, the city is negotiating a policy with the police union for the use of the cameras that would ensure officers can’t view the footage before their initial investigative report or interview to a detective if they use deadly force, the mayor said.

The U.S. Department of Justice demanded the city take that step as a way to remedy its failure to meet the terms of a 2014 settlement agreement on police use of force, training and oversight.

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