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Portland police may still see pay raises

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PORTLAND TRIBINE FILE PHOTO - Mayor Charlie Hales says he will continue to push the City Council to increase police salaries.Despite the recent City Council approval of next year’s budget, the clash over money will continue when it comes to police.

Mayor Charlie Hales has vowed to use the remainder of his term to press for funding to support police pay raises to combat an unprecedented shortfall of patrol officers.

His fellow commissioners elected to support some aspects of Hales’ plan to boost police staffing, but not others. Now Hales intends to push the need for raises in upcoming council discussions, including about a potential marijuana tax — meaning revenue from a drug long fought by police officers could end up funding them.

Under the budget approved by the council, the city will invest in new background investigators to accelerate hiring, among other things. However, commissioners didn’t back the costlier part of Hales’ plan, to add new tiers to the police pay scale in an effort to retain the officers the city has.

In addition to dozens of retirements, Portland officers in midcareer have been taking jobs with other cities that offer less hassle and comparable or better pay.

Hales on Friday said he won’t give up. Officers are “tired,” and they “have to have the time,” he said. “You can’t just be racing from call to call if you want to maintain the (community) relationship.”

Hales declined to comment on negotiations that have been underway with the city’s police union. But the two sides reportedly have framed the outlines of a potential agreement that would boost police pay at a cost of about $3 million per year in each of the coming three years. It would also implement a police body-camera policy, settle several police union grievances, and eliminate the “48-hour rule” that makes it impossible to interview officers immediately after shootings.

“We’ve had conversations about retention and recruitment for months,” said Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association. He, like Hales, declined to discuss the agreement in detail, but said, “Obviously part of that is retention and being able to keep the officers we have.”

While Ted Wheeler won the election to succeed Hales, he doesn’t take office until January. Through a representative, he declined to comment. Wheeler did not win the endorsement of the police union. He called for an end to the 48-hour rule, more cops and increased community policing — all goals that Hales says he is trying to achieve.

Vacancies boost workload

The City Council is expected to discuss the union negotiations in an upcoming closed-door meeting, perhaps as soon as next month. Meanwhile, discussions continue about potential new revenue sources: a possible marijuana tax that might be headed for the November ballot, as well as a proposed city construction excise tax — one that Commissioner Dan Saltzman wants dedicated exclusively to affordable housing.

The debate over public safety spending comes as the latest numbers back up Hales’ depiction of the state of the police. It’s also what Portland police officers say in person: Calls are significantly up, but with about 60 vacancies, the number of cops available to answer them are down. Two dozen officers are or have retired, with dozens more on the horizon.

Statistics released earlier this month show that the total number of police calls has grown by roughly 20 percent in the first four months of this year, compared to five years ago. Thanks to reduced patrol officers, the number of calls per officer has jumped by a third in that same period.

Community policing down

Meanwhile, the number of self-initiated calls for the bureau, a statistic used as a benchmark for community policing, has plummeted by about a third overall.

Staffing levels today are what would have been considered unthinkable in the past, with one officer covering three patrol districts during some shifts, according to patrol officers speaking privately with the Portland Tribune. In the past, each district was patrolled by a minimum of one officer.

The union reportedly has filed at least two grievances related to the staffing issue. One alleges that officers are at risk, while the other questions a new shift arrangement adopted by the bureau to deal with the short staffing, saying that it should have been negotiated with the union.

If the city reaches the negotiated agreement, those grievances would be settled without going to an arbitrator.

The police bureau recently shifted to reporting crime statistics several times a year, not annually. Robbery, bike and auto thefts are up, while many other crimes are down.

Hales has cited gang violence as one of a number of problems that increased staffing would address.

The latest gang statistics for the first half of May showed a comparative lull, with six gang-related incidents, a rate that is about half of what was seen last year in May. Officers at the North Precinct gang meeting, where the numbers were announced, linked the drop to a recent sweep of gang-involved people.

But Turner says the drop is likely temporary, as June tends to be a peak month for gang violence. He predicted other crime increases based on the city’s “catastrophic staffing issues.”

Lame duck or not, Hales says he won’t give up.

“The next available funds that come before the City Council I’m going to say, ‘How about now?’” he said in an interview following the gang meeting. “And if that doesn’t work, I’m going to do it on the next available source of funds. As long as I’m in office, I’m going to take every opportunity to make the case.”