MY VIEW • Mayor's first task: solving downtown disorder

This year, Portland will elect a new mayor. One of his central tasks: to curb the routine, everyday disorder that plagues the downtown core.

Downtown is Portland's 'heart' Ñ its business and cultural center, home and workplace for tens of thousands, and the part of our city most visitors see. Still, especially during warm months, disorder prevails on many downtown blocks. Vagrants panhandle for 'spare change.' Street kids Ñ many using loud, vulgar language Ñ throng around light-rail stops and public parks and squares. On some corners, drug dealers troll for business even during daytime hours.

Disorder's cost is high. It undermines citizens' confidence in their city's ability to assure public decorum Ñ and thereby fractures the social cohesion and sense of safety that alone can make that city livable.

More quantifiably, note social scientists James Wilson and George Kell--ing, 'serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked.' Portland Police Bureau statistics routinely have shown more Ñ and more serious Ñ crime downtown than in most other Portland neighborhoods. High-profile incidents include the Pioneer Courthouse Square riot of New Year's Eve 2000; the lunch-hour 'Xanax' shooting on Southwest Broadway in 2002; and the murders of Richard Clayton Crosby in 2000, Nicholas Moore in 2001 and Jessica Williams in 2003 by violent downtown 'street families.'

Despite all this, Portland's government has been remarkably cavalier toward downtown disorder. In 2000, the City Council lifted the downtown skateboarding ban Ñ thereby elevating the interests of juvenile (and often unruly) 'boarders' to the same moral plane as the interests of downtown's adult workers and residents. And in 2002, despite pleas from downtown store owners frustrated by loiterers and panhandlers, that same council refused to pass a new and tougher 'sit-lie' ordinance.

Still, with one move, the next mayor can help atone for this Ñ and go far to curb downtown disorder.

That move would be to institute regular police foot patrols in the downtown core Ñ the 200-some blocks bounded by West Burnside Street, Southwest Market Street, Southwest 13th Avenue and Southwest Naito Parkway.

Police officers on these beats would be assigned to a set number of (perhaps eight or 10) blocks. Their main charge: to maintain street-level order. They would enforce the city's ordinances on juvenile truancy and curfews; disperse large clusters of street kids; discourage and, if necessary, arrest aggressive panhandlers; ticket those sitting or lying on sidewalks; and expel known dealers and users from the downtown drug-free zone. And they would pay special attention to the places Ñ for example, Pioneer Courthouse Square, the Park Blocks, light-rail stops on Southwest Morrison Ñ where disorderly people are known to congregate most numerously.

The foot patrols would supplement Ñ not replace Ñ downtown's motor and bicycle patrols. They might be drawn in part from the police bureau's reserve forces. Needed new officers might be funded by the city's next budget, with savings realized from Mayor Katz's recently announced plan to consolidate city agencies' maintenance functions.

Police foot patrols are no 'magic bullet.' But in other cities, such patrols have helped raise citizens' confidence that order is being protected. Wilson and Kelling write that in Newark, N.J., 'residents of the foot-patrolled neighborhoods seemed to feel more secure than persons in other areas' and 'tended to believe that crime had been reduced.'

Portland's responsible citizens have earned the right to safety and civility in their city's downtown. A newly elected mayor will have the public good will, the moral authority and the 'bully pulpit' to help them reclaim that right.

The best way to do so: a zero-tolerance, 'tough-love' approach to downtown disorder Ñ with regular police foot patrols at its core.

Richard F. LaMountain wrote for and edited at Conservative Digest, a national magazine that ceased publication in 1986. He earned a degree in political science from the University of Colorado. He lives in downtown Portland.

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