Bottleneck at Ore. police academy leaves recruits waiting months for basic training
Portland police hired 80 new officers in the past year, but more than half of them haven’t started due to lack of training academies
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland police hired 80 new officers in the past year, but more than half of them haven’t even started their training.
They must wait up to five months for a seat in one of the state’s police basic training academy classes.
After hiring practically ground to a halt during the height of the pandemic and social unrest, Portland and other police agencies across the state have resurrected their stalled recruitment programs and are gradually filling vacancies.
“It created a bubble larger than we could actually address,” said Brian Henson, acting director of the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
Since September, the state agency has gone back to the Legislature’s emergency board to ask for money to add four more classes to the usual 16 basic training classes planned per biennium.
But that still won’t meet the need, Henson said.
Each basic police academy class is open to 40 students, but Portland police are allotted only a certain number of seats in each class.
As a result, at least 46 new recruits from Portland have yet to begin their training.
While they wait, some have been assigned to help manage the bureau’s uniforms and gear, assist in Portland’s Sunshine Division, which provides food for the needy, or serve as role players for in-house training on crowd control and public order — anything but street patrol where they’re needed most.
“It’s great news and bad news,” Henson said. “It’s just fantastic for the agencies, meaning they’ve been successful in attracting and hiring candidates to become police officers. We’ve just got to make sure they have the training to do various components of the job.”
Police Chief Chuck Lovell said filling officer vacancies remains “paramount” to providing Portland residents with “the service they need and deserve.”
The Police Bureau remains 80 sworn officers shy of its authorized number of 882.
The basic training backlog exacerbates the shortfall, he said.
People calling police to respond to emergency calls waited an average of 17.8 minutes for an officer’s response between June and December, according to police figures.
In October, it took police an average of 20.4 minutes to arrive at a scene on a high-priority call.
Those are high above the citywide goal of responding to high-priority calls – such as an assault or robbery in progress – in five minutes or less.
Police supervisors believe response times will fall when the new officers can finally hit the streets and fill patrol vacancies. The bureau also will be able to do more proactive missions to target significant crimes once it fills the vacancies, the chief said.
“The issue is they got hired to be police officers, and they can’t fill that function,” said Sgt. Brad Yakots, a supervisor of the Portland Police Bureau’s personnel division.
POLICE AGENCIES LEND TRAINERS TO STATE ACADEMY
The basic training class lasts 16 weeks but it essentially starts the clock on an 18-month probation period before Portland officers can respond to calls on their own.
Almost 100 recruits currently remain in training, working to complete their probationary period, including those still waiting to get into basic training, police said.
Four new officers sworn in on Thursday won’t be able to begin training at the academy until June or July, Yakots said.
“We’re trying to put them to good use, but we just can’t put them to work in what they came here to do,” he said.
Last week, for instance, a handful of recruits attended a breakfast at a hotel in downtown Portland, where the chief, Multnomah County’s new sheriff and the district attorney addressed the Portland Business Alliance about public safety in the city.
The bureau is reluctant, Yakots said, to allow new hires to help answer non-emergency calls or write reports on stolen cars or low-level crimes because they have no training or experience asking the right questions needed to initiate an investigation.
The state’s effort to add extra classes helps shave several weeks off the current five-month wait, Yakots said.
In the past, the bureau had recruits awaiting training meet with different community groups and nonprofit agencies to learn about what each does and to develop contacts for the future once they’re on patrol.
Sgt. Aaron Schmautz, who leads the police union, said the bureau needs to ensure the recruits are integrated into the agency and the city during the delay.
Portland police, Gresham police and other metro law enforcement agencies are lending trainers to the state for at least a week at a time to help support the additional classes.
And while that’s a help and the state has always relied on part-time trainers at the basic academy, those numbers are dwindling, Henson said, as retirements and recruiting challenges reduce overall police ranks.
“So when we looked to add a January class, we didn’t have enough to staff it,” he said.
EMERGENCY BOARD ACTS
In September, the Legislature’s emergency board increased the public safety department’s spending by $1.28 million to add two basic training classes. In December, the board provided the same amount for another two classes.It costs about $640,000 to cover meals, lodging, ammunition and instruction for 40 students in each class. Funding comes from the state’s criminal fines account.
The extra money was above the approximately $10 million already set aside for the state training division’s traditional 16 basic police classes planned from July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2023.
At the emergency board’s meeting last month, several senators from Portland to eastern Oregon urged creative solutions this session to address the training academy bottleneck.
Sen. Lynn P. Findley, R- Vale, said the state should take a hard look at decentralizing training so recruits from rural agencies don’t have to travel hours to the Salem academy and be away from their families for so long.
Not only does the state have to delve into who is being recruited for policing jobs, but it should take steps this legislative session to address the time it’s taking for new officers to get the training they need, said state Sen. Lew Frederick, D- Portland.
Talk of setting up regional academies hasn’t made sense in the past, Henson said. Money remains an issue.
“As we were facing this bubble, we looked to see if we could push a satellite academy somewhere else,” he said. But it may not make sense over the long term, he said.
“Right now, we’re in a hiring bubble, but they don’t always exist,” he said.
Other police agencies face a similar dilemma as Portland.
While the Salem Police Department now has just two recruits waiting eight to 10 weeks for basic training, the department expects the training needs to only increase.
The department is authorized for 199 officers and has 22 vacancies.
“The need is real and will only continue to grow,” said Salem Police Chief Trevor Womack, “as more and more agencies, like ours, seek to fill large numbers of vacancies.”
Elsewhere, vacancies continue to fill at police agencies around Oregon, fueling the need for basic training:
- Oregon State Police: The agency is authorized for 766 sworn members and has 106 vacancies. Capt. Kyle Kennedy said he didn’t have the numbers of recruits awaiting an academy start date. But the agency hired 84 officers last year – far more than the 46 in 2021 and 39 in 2020.
- Eugene: The department is authorized for 223.5 officers and has 26 vacancies. Spokesperson Melinda V. McLaughlin said new hires typically must wait eight to 10 weeks before they can start their basic training at the state academy.
- Both Oregon State Police and Eugene police hold pre-academies before sending new hires to the state’s basic police academy. Eugene’s pre-academy also acts as a place holder until the recruits can attend the state’s basic academy, McLaughlin said.
- Portland police hold a 12-week advanced academy for recruits after they complete the state’s basic academy.
- Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office: Authorized 570 sworn positions; has 41 vacancies. Hired 87 new sworn members in 2022. Recently hired deputy sheriffs are having to wait four to five months for the state’s basic training academy.