“Do you feel safe in Portland?” reads a billboard erected this month in Oregon’s largest city.
It’s part of a police union campaign urging city leaders to roll back police department budget cuts as local shopkeepers, frustrated by rampant street crime and a 327% spike in homicides, are hiring private security guards to restore order.
“We desperately need city leaders to take action, fund and staff our police bureau, and put politics aside and public safety first,” said Daryl Turner, the executive director of the Portland Police Association.
The city of more than 654,000 has nearly 100 open positions of the 917 allotted to the Portland Police Bureau. As recently as three years ago, the force had 1,016 badges. Baltimore, a city with almost 50,000 fewer residents, fields a police force of 2,500 officers.
The budget for Portland’s police department has shrunk each of the past three fiscal years, from $238.2 million to $229.5 million to $222.5 million.
The Portland Police Association said it began putting up billboards his month to raise awareness of public safety concerns as shootings and gun violence “skyrocket.” The boards also display a website where people can sign a petition for a call to action.
Portland data shows the number of homicides increased from 11 in the first six months of 2020 to 47 this year.
Homicides have risen steadily in recent years — from 25 in 2017, 26 in 2018 and 36 in 2019 to 57 last year as the city dealt first with the pandemic lockdown and then the explosion of anti-police protests.
Data also shows 567 shootings halfway into this year, more than double the 262 recorded during the same period last year.
“Every day that goes by without city council aggressively addressing public safety is another unnecessarily lost life,” the union said.
National Police Association spokeswoman Betsy Brantner Smith said the association thinks the Portland Police Association’s campaign “is an excellent idea.”
“The Portland Police Bureau is overworked and understaffed, and the public needs to know about it,” said Ms. Smith, a retired police sergeant.
Amid the bullets and bloodshed, Mr. Turner said, “inadequate staffing in the police bureau is hurting our communities and putting all of us at risk.”
More than 100 police officers have left the force since the City Council slashed nearly $27 million from the bureau‘s budget last summer. Local leaders said $11.8 million was cut because of pandemic-related budget issues. The council redirected an additional $15 million from the police budget to community groups working to curtail violence.
The final $229.5 million budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year eliminated the bureau‘s Body Worn Camera program and 84 sworn positions, reducing the number of sworn officer allotments from 1,001 to 917.
The budget was cut amid calls to “defund the police” and protests over racial injustice and police brutality that had swept the nation since the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed while in Minnesota police custody in May 2020.
Charles Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, said defunding the police is not the answer to public safety problems.
“We have consistently been opposed to the concepts expressed as ‘defund the police,’ but rather believe that fiscal realignment is a more appropriate budgetary method of ensuring that public safety is properly maintained, community engagement is heightened and stronger levels of police accountability are brought to bear,” Mr. Wilson said.
The Portland Police Bureau requested a $226.8 million budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which began on July 1, but the council approved $222.5 million.
Within days after the budget was passed in June, the entire Portland Police Rapid Response Team — a group of officers who voluntarily respond to crisis situations — resigned after the indictment of an officer accused of using unlawful force against a protester.
The team of about 50 police officers, detectives and sergeants were on the frontlines of months of anti-police protests in Portland. The protests often resulted in violence and looting. At one point last summer, the protests in the city carried on for 100 consecutive nights.
Acting Police Chief Chris Davis said in June that the Rapid Response Team “members did not volunteer to have Molotov cocktails, fireworks, explosives, rocks, bottles, urine, feces, and other dangerous objects thrown at them.”
“Nor did they volunteer to have threats of rape, murder, and assault on their families hurled at them,” he said. “They did not volunteer to suffer serious injuries, to be subject to warrantless criticism and false allegations by elected officials, or to suffer through baseless complaints and lengthy investigations devoid of due process.”
Mr. Turner said the officers “had enough and were left with no other alternative but to resign from their voluntary positions.” They are still part of the staff and are performing other duties.
After a violent Saturday last month in which seven people were shot and one person died, Mayor Ted Wheeler vowed to rally for more badges.
“I will fight for additional resources for the police bureau, I will fight for more police officers, and I will fight for more tools and whatever other support the police bureau needs in order to get its job done,” he said during a virtual press conference.
Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, however, said she “could not in good conscience add more officers to a dysfunctional police force,” KOIN 6 News reported.
“I did hear the mayor say we need more police and more training, but every time there’s a community tragedy, that’s the tag line we use,” Ms. Hardesty reportedly said. “And even if we had 10 police officers on the corner downtown, what would have turned out different? Nothing.”
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, spoke out against the city’s policing policies.
“The ‘hands-off’ policy by the leaders of Portland toward its endemic street violence problem is unsustainable — and unfair to the residents of Portland,” Mr. Pitcavage tweeted last week.
With a lack of police presence, some local businesses have hired their own private security guards, some of them armed with guns, tactical gear and metal detector wands.
A team of nine officers assigned to patrol the city’s Entertainment District and the 38-strong Gun Violence Reduction Team also were disbanded last year after the budget cuts.
The bureau has been struggling to staff a 14-member Focused Intervention Team started in March. The team is supposed to serve to fight gun violence, similar to the role of the now-defunct GVRT.
Police have said only two officers are assigned to patrol the bustling Entertainment District, according to local news outlet Willamette Week.
Jessie Burke, co-owner of the Society Hotel and vice president of the Old Town Chinatown Community Association, told the news outlet that “there aren’t enough police officers.”
“We’re having to do what the government used to do,” Ms. Burke reportedly said. “We’re kind of running an underground government to keep things safe.”