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Why Portland has fewer cops now than any point in past 30 years

Portland has just one officer for every 827 residents, far fewer cops per capita than the authorized national average

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Mark Graves/The Oregonian

By Shane Dixon Kavanaugh

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Police Bureau currently deploys fewer sworn officers — 789 — than at any point in the past in 30 years, according to the bureau and an analysis of records by The Oregonian/OregonLive, even though the city added more than 165,000 new residents over that period.

Why? One big reason is the city’s growing struggle to hire new cops and retain the ones it has.

Ten years ago, Oregon’s largest city had nearly 1,000 working sworn officers, from those driving patrol up to the chief. But that number stands below 800 today – in part because city leaders have shrunk the number of authorized positions but mostly because an unprecedented 127 sworn positions are vacant.

The bureau’s vacancy rate has climbed sharply in recent years, leaving Portland with just one working officer for every 827 residents. That’s dramatically fewer cops per capita than the authorized national average, including some other mid-size cities with comparable metro areas, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Seattle, for example, staffs 29% more, with one officer for every 643 residents. Denver deploys 74% more cops per capita than Portland, with one for every 475 residents.

Portland leaders are now debating whether to increase the ranks of the police bureau and how to do it amid officer staffing shortages, attempts at public safety reform and record numbers of shootings and homicides across the city.

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“There is such a thing as too few officers,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said last week during a press conference. “I can objectively say we are critically short staffed.”

Wheeler said he is now pushing to immediately rehire 25 recently retired Portland police officers and to add another 200 sworn officers to the bureau’s ranks in the future. But he concedes that would take years to achieve, given the 18 to 24 months needed to hire and train an officer in Oregon.

The Portland City Council authorized funding for 916 sworn officers in this year’s budget, but one out of every eight positions was vacant as of Oct. 21. Of the 789 who are on the force, only 352 are currently assigned to patrol the city’s three police precincts, which must staff three shifts a day, seven days a week.

The last time Portland police had a smaller authorized force was in 1993, when its sworn staff numbered 897, according to records reviewed by The Oregonian/OregonLive. While the bureau said it could not provide figures for working sworn officers prior to 2002, it said that number likely never dipped below the current officer tally of 789.

“I can tell you that based on all the information we have we believe the bureau has fewer sworn members than there has been for at least 30 years,” Sgt. Kevin Allen, a Portland police spokesperson, said in an email.

Data shows the city’s authorized police force fluctuated between about 950 and 1,000 sworn officers a year between 2011 and 2020 and staff vacancies topped 60 only three times, during which time Portland’s population grew by nearly 80,000 residents.

Then in mid-2020, the City Council cut the authorized force to just above 900. Since then, officers have started to leave the state’s largest police force in droves, citing a lack of support from city leaders and the community at large, poor management within the bureau and the criticism its members sustained during Portland’s reckoning against racial injustice and police violence.

Viewed through a per-capita lens, Portland has “been ‘de-policing’ for quite a while now because the population has been rising,” said Kris Henning, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University. “It’s just that the rate of decline has increased significantly in the last two years.”

If Oregon’s largest city wanted a police force whose size correlated with the average officer-to-resident rate in the U.S., it would need to authorize funding for more than 800 additional cops, said Henning, who tracks police staffing numbers nationwide.

Portland and other west coast cities have historically had smaller police forces than the national average, Henning said. But Portland — which has had fewer violent crimes per capita compared to the average of large U.S. cities but higher rates of property crime — has seen far sharper declines in the size of its force than other places.

The officer-to-resident ratio declined nationally by 7.5% between 2010 and 2020, according to recent figures published by Portland State University. The rate in Portland dropped by 22.3% during that time and has continued to further slide with its recent wave of departures.

A growing level of police vacancies is not exclusive to Portland, however. The city’s current vacancy rate for its police bureau is 14%, which falls between Kansas City’s 12% rate and Seattle’s 15%, the newsroom found. But it’s well above vacancy rates in Denver and Sacramento.

“This is something we’ve never had before in American policing. It’s really the first time we’re seeing these levels of departures,” said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “To me, there’s a direct correlation with the anti-police sentiment of the last year-and-a-half.”

That sentiment, which reached a high point in summer 2020, may be changing in Portland and around the country, however. Recent local and national polls have shown a majority of voters support adding more police. And pro-police candidates for office in liberal cities such as New York and Seattle have decisively won recent elections.

To try to meet his short- and long-term police hiring goals, Wheeler has proposed pouring more money into the city’s recruitment efforts and offering $25,000 signing bonuses to prospective Portland officers.

The Portland City Council plans to review the mayor’s police staffing proposals Wednesday and will vote on them and a series of other items that are part of a $60 million fall spending package.

Haberfeld and Henning cautioned that raw numbers of officers alone do not determine whether a police department is sufficiently staffed. The number and types of reported crimes, volume of calls for service and police response times must be factored in as well, they said.

Portland officials say the city continues to see record levels of emergency and non-emergency calls as well increased reports from residents that officers are taking too long to respond or not at all, prompting Wheeler to request a comprehensive review of police response times.

“In the end, however,” PSU’s Henning said, “I’m still fairly confident that we would be significantly understaffed if these additional metrics were considered.”

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