Portland police stretched thin after state police leave downtown

By Jonathan Levinson (OPB)
Aug. 18, 2020 10:52 p.m.

Neighboring law enforcement says they will help if Portland police need it

Paint covers Portland officers policing protests in downtown Portland, Ore., Aug. 12, 2020.

Paint covers Portland officers policing protests in downtown Portland, Ore., Aug. 12, 2020.

Jonathan Levinson / Jonathan Levinson

When Oregon State Police pulled their troopers from Portland on Thursday — ending their role supporting the Portland Police Bureau in protest response — it left the bureau struggling to staff the nightly protests while also responding to routine calls for service throughout the city.


“OSP filled a big hole for us,” said a PPB official who was not authorized to speak on the record about staffing concerns. “We just gotta staff [protests] in-house somehow.”

But with 43 officers expected to retire in August, staffing the demonstrations “in house” is also going to get harder. Until July 1, the bureau had been short about 100 sworn officers out of an allotted 1,001. That’s when a new budget took effect that effectively erased the shortage by eliminating 84 full time sworn officer positions, bringing the bureau down to 917 allotted full-time slots.

Today, PPB has 905 sworn officers but that includes bureau leadership and members who aren’t on patrol. It also includes 100 officers who are still on probation or who haven’t attended the police academy because training was suspended for two months due to COVID.

Neighboring agencies have said they will always assist in responding to emergencies like active assaults or unfolding domestic violence incidents, but most agencies are not actively contributing to protest-related policing matters. Since protests against systemic racism and police violence began May 29, some agencies had been assisting by responding to low priority calls in the city so that Portland police officers could do crowd control downtown.

But as protests continued, now stretching past 80 days, some agencies are refocusing on their own jurisdictions.

“Early on in the protest time period, Gresham was staffing additional resources with the ability to respond to Portland calls,” said Gresham police spokesperson Kevin Carlson. “Gresham police has withdrawn their officers from staffing Portland police patrol districts.”

Gresham police continue to support the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Rapid Response Team guarding the Justice Center when needed, Carlson said.

“We will continue to staff and work like we have in previous weeks,” a police bureau spokesperson said. “Each evening is different and we will continue to respond accordingly.”

The Portland Police Bureau didn’t answer specific questions about how it plans to manage the gap left by OSP.

OSP sent about 100 troopers to Portland in late July as part of a deal negotiated between Gov. Kate Brown and Vice President Mike Pence to end the controversial federal law enforcement presence — seen by many as provocative.


OSP was brought in to replace federal officers at the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse, though state police had been helping PPB with protest response prior to that agreement.

Protests have decreased in size significantly since July. But if they grew again, it is not clear how many supporting officers Portland could draw from neighboring jurisdictions.

Mutual aid agreements in the region took a hit last year when a million-dollar judgment against Washington County was handed down after officers with Washington County’s Tactical Negotiations Team wounded a man in 2012 while assisting PPB on a search warrant. Under that longstanding agreement, each agency assumed responsibility for its own officers when operating in a partner’s jurisdiction.

The lawsuit payout spurred Washington and Clackamas counties to pull out of their mutual aid agreement with the Portland police, saying their deputies would only respond to emergencies in the city when the bureau was overwhelmed.

Two days after protests began in Portland, records show the city requested assistance from Washington County and agreed to hold deputies harmless for any civil claims that arose from that help.

“On behalf of the City of Portland, I am requesting mutual assistance pursuant to ORS chapter 402.215 to respond to anticipated demonstrations on May 31, 2020 and addition days as needed,” Mayor Ted Wheeler’s senior policy advisor for public safety Robert King wrote in an email to the Clackamas and Washington County sheriffs.

King wrote that Portland would assume the obligations laid out in Oregon law, including responsibility for any potential payouts.

Washington County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Danny DiPietro said the department staffed an additional four to five deputies between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. every night through June 7 to respond to calls on the city’s west side. And while the agency is happy to help when needed, he said, there are limits to what WCSO can handle.

“It’s not financially responsible to go downtown and assist with manpower issues day after day after day,” DiPietro said. “The Sheriff has to make a decision about what is best for Washington County. That is who we are paid to protect and who we are responsible to.”

Now, with federal officers pulled back and OSP troopers gone from nightly protests, PPB alone has the significant task of policing events it declares as riots, while still also responding to daily requests for service. Both Clackamas and Washington County sheriff’s offices said there are currently no pending requests for assistance from PPB.

“Every request for assistance would be evaluated by the Sheriff and he’ll determine the level of response,” said Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Marcus Mendoza.

PPB has one circumstance in its favor: a general decline in crime during the pandemic. Between May 29 and July 7, the bureau received 41,910 calls for service. That’s compared to an average of 62,394 for the same time period over the past three years.

The city has seen an alarming increase in shootings and homicides, a trend which is happening across the country. But, between May 29 and July 7, a litany of crimes had decreased by more than 50% including drug offenses, shoplifting, and certain property crimes. Robberies, vehicle thefts and rape have also dropped by double digits.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect PPB’s current staffing.