Lisa Schroeder, the owner of Mother’s Bistro & Bar in downtown Portland, Oregon, realized things had to change last month after she was on hold for more than an hour with the local police department.
“I waited on hold on the nonemergency police number after an incident where a skateboarder trashed a bunch of glasses we had outside our restaurant for outdoor diners,” Ms. Schroeder told The Washington Times. “I finally hung up after nearly 1 1/2 hours.”
Ms. Schroeder, fed up with repeatedly having to clean graffiti off the windows of her comfort food restaurant, figured it was time that she joined the growing roster of Old Town businesses hiring private security guards to protect employees and property.
She was relieved to find out that another tenant in her building had already done just that.
“Without police, you know, crime happens,” she said.
Local police union leader Aaron Schmautz says people like Ms. Schroeder are “very reasonably” frustrated.
“A lot of these business owners are just basically waiting for help there,” said Mr. Schmautz, president of the Portland Police Association. He added that some businesses are having issues with attracting customers because “people don’t feel safe.”
Last week, the Portland Police Bureau — the official name of the city police force — announced that, due to staff shortages, officers would only respond to high-priority calls that are life-threatening or major property crimes. The department also warned that even those responses could be delayed.
“The amount of calls as it relates to how many officers we have on the street is — it’s just completely untenable — which is why we keep saying over and over, we need more people,” Mr. Schmautz said, adding that some officers begin their shifts with 30 to 50 unanswered calls holding for service.
Portland‘s exodus of officers began in July 2020 after racial justice protest spread across the country after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minnesota police officer.
Protests went on almost every night in Portland for more than 100 days, and city leaders responded to calls to “defund the police” by slashing $15 million from the force’s budget. Spending on law enforcement in the city has shrunk each of the past three fiscal years, from $238.2 million to $229.5 million to $222.5 million.
The city of more than 654,000 currently has nearly 200 openings on a police force with 917 authorized positions. 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.
But as the police force shrinks, crime grows.
Portland has recorded at least 69 homicides so far in 2021 — the most since 67 were recorded in 1987.
The number of drug crimes in the city has nearly tripled compared to the same time last year, going from 318 to 895; shootings are up 35%, going from 695 to 1,080 and carjackings are up 23%, going from 5,337 to 6,994.
Police Chief Chuck Lovell, responding to a recent spate of violence in the city, said last week: “We know our community is concerned about the rise in violence and we are doing our best to respond and investigate these crimes.”
Kris Henning, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University, says the officer shortage also means police are doing more reactive policing, rather than proactive policing.
“The No. 1 thing that influences people and discourages them from engaging in criminal activity is the perceived risk of getting caught,” Mr. Henning said. “There isn’t much of a perceived risk of getting caught in Portland anymore.”
Bar owner Oleg Pilipenko says the city these days has become the “wild, wild west.”
“I mean, right now, we can’t even walk in the city ‘cause it’s not safe,” Mr. Pilipenko said. “It’s a lawless city … This is how people feel now: because there is no law on the street, you don’t have to follow the law.”
Mr. Pilipenko’s bar, Katie O’Brien’s, has been robbed twice in recent weeks.
Now, he closes the bar two hours early each day and doubles the number of staff on each shift — but says it’s still hard to keep employees because they “don’t feel safe” at work.
Jessie Burke, who owns the nearby Society Hotel, recently told Oregon Public Broadcasting that she now calls Echelon Protective Services, a private security company she hired in July 2020, before she contacts the police.
“Neighborhoods used to have a walking beat [cop] because they could get to know everybody and then it was easier to mitigate stuff. That’s what Echelon does,” Ms. Burke told the news outlet. “They’re in the neighborhood, walking the whole neighborhood, all the time. That’s why they know everybody.”
Echelon co-owner Reid Kerr told The Times that the security guards try “to get residents the services they need to battle homelessness, drug addiction and hunger.”
The business launched in Portland in 2019 and has more than 50 employees and more than 300 clients nationwide.
The security guards “are not only trained to deescalate situations, but they also receive extensive training in helping individuals with mental health and addiction issues,” Mr. Kerr said.
Multnomah District Attorney Mike Schmidt, however, told Oregon Public Broadcasting that last fall his office stopped pursuing charges in cases that rely heavily on testimony from Echelon security guards.
“I have been disturbed by allegations of misconduct by employees of Echelon Protective Services,” Mr. Schmidt told the news outlet. “Taken together, they suggest that Echelon staff are inadequately trained in conflict deescalation, the use of force as a last resort only, and basic tactical considerations meant to protect both themselves and the members of the public with whom they interact.”
Police union leader Mr. Schmautz also warned that there can be downsides to replacing sworn, professionally trained officers with cops-for-hire.
There should not be a “zero-sum game” where residents feel they must choose between security guards or police because that is “where you end up with things kind of going sideways,” he said.
Mr. Schmautz noted that security guards are “limited” in how they can respond to certain situations because they do not have the same training or rights as police officers.
He pointed to last May’s fatal shooting of a man by a private security guard hired by a shopping center in North Portland. The guard was recently indicted and is facing charges in the case.
Authorities say Logan Gimbel was illegally carrying a gun while working for Cornerstone Security Group when he shot and killed Freddy Nelson in a parking lot at the Delta Park Center shopping plaza.
The security guard claims he was acting in self-defense because he thought Mr. Nelson was going to run him over with his car.
• Emily Zantow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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