Police ask for 85 more officers
Citing an increase in response times, high overtime costs and massive cuts in specialty units, the Portland Police Bureau is asking the City Council to authorize an additional 85 officers to prepare for its next big wave of retirements.
The bureau's ask for an extra $3 million over the next eight months comes a year after the council approved raises and other changes that added millions to the Portland police budget intended to deal with staffing issues. It also comes as the city is bracing for budget cuts next year.
The bureau's push to get the word out is being led by Assistant Chief Chris Davis. He says more hiring is necessary to cope with years of neglect, a bigger city and a surge in property crimes — so much so that car thefts are occurring at a rate of six per day.
Response times "are going up, that's the bottom line," Davis said in a recent interview. "At any one time there are fewer people available to respond to an emergency."
While the increased response times are mostly occurring with low- and medium-priority calls, police officials contend that the effect is being felt across the bureau, including its specialty units, such the traffic division.
Davis also notes a precipitous drop in officers' ability to do proactive policing that is not generated by 911 calls. Self-initiated calls have dropped over the past several years from about 200,000 calls a year to 85,000 calls a year, he said.
"All of these things taken together indicate a fair amount of strain in our ability to keep up with the demand for our service," he said.
The bureau's push echoes what some Portland patrol officers complain of informally, that they are having to rush from call to call — sometimes driving long ways to snag calls in other patrol districts.
Lt. Ryan Lee of Central Precinct told the Tribune that recently it took the bureau 47 minutes to respond to a call from a suicidal man — which he considers unacceptable. Thankfully, officers got there in time before the man acted.
"We just don't have enough people to get them to where they need to be," Lee said.
He also said the short staffing is affecting community policing, with more officers the bureau could do a better job of connecting vulnerable homeless people with vacant beds operated by local social service providers.
"We don't have the time to make those contacts and engage in that networking to get them the services that they need," he said.
Last year, the Portland City Council increased officer pay to help fill vacancies and stave off retirements, and the change has allowed the bureau to hire 72 sworn officers and fill most of its vacancies.
However, those new cops have to undergo an 18-month period of training and probation. And the bureau is as much as a year away from setting up a new 12-person community service officer program authorized by the council last year to respond to low-level crimes and help ease the burden.
Meanwhile, the bureau has another wave of 45 officers expected to retire early next year — setting up a replay of last year's hiring crisis.
The good news? Portland's pay and benefits now exceed those of some other major cities. The bureau hopes to leverage that edge in recruiting to lock in a high-quality and diverse pool of new hires, Davis told the City Council earlier this month.
"We actually have people competing for our jobs, and that's not the norm for other large cities," Davis said. "That's a strength that we want to capitalize on now."
The hiring would work like this: It would not increase the bureau's permanent positions. Rather, it would allow the hiring of 50 positions called "overhires," meaning they are not authorized positions in the budget, in preparation for future retirements. The change would also set up 35 limited-term positions for the bureau's controversial and costly retiree-hire program, which has led to Portland cops being hired back for full, elevated salaries even while they collect their Portland retirement pay.
Council sympathetic, realistic
The bureau's briefing to the council on Oct. 3 was met with sympathetic comments, but also recognition that funds are tight.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz noted that the desire to keep cops well-staffed and alert was why the council approved a union contract with hefty raises last year.
She and Mayor Ted Wheeler urged the hiring of community service officers to ease the burden on cops. Fritz expressed skepticism of the retiree-hire program, saying "there should be some way to provide some help without hiring some of the most expensive officers back."
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly asked how many new hires would it take to beef up traffic division staffing, saying "Anecdotally, it just seems like people on the street driving are a little out of control, so that specialty traffic enforcement is of interest to me."
When council members raised the issue of available funds, Davis responded, "We don't have all the answers here. We're not saying the city can afford this. This is just where we are trying to be."