A hiring freeze. A “recalibration” of the Portland police’s use of social media. A truth and reconciliation committee between police and the Portlanders they serve.
Should Mayor Ted Wheeler give Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty control of the police force as she has asked, Hardesty says the public can expect some of these ideas to move from paper to reality within a month.
Amid wildfires, far-right rallies and a presidential race, Hardesty’s demands to take day-to-day oversight of the police bureau have faded from headlines. The mayor has given little indication he will hand over the police force to one of its loudest critics. He had an opening earlier this month when he reshuffled city bureaus to adjust for new commissioner Dan Ryan entering office. Hardesty’s office had a statement ready accepting the bureau. They did not need it.
But the fast-approaching November election could bring new relevance to Hardesty’s ask. Wheeler’s opponent, Sarah Iannarone, has pledged to give Hardesty control of the police force on her first day in office. The mayor has said he, too, will reconsider Hardesty’s offer in January.
So, while Hardesty’s public push may be on hiatus, it’s worth diving into what exactly what the council’s fiercest critic of the police would do if the mayor put her in charge.
OPB talked with Hardesty about her 30-day proposal, an action plan for the changes she’s itching to make to the city’s police bureau.
Here’s some of what she wants to see:
Less riot gear
Protesters have charged that police who begin their nightly shift decked in helmets, face visors, body armor and shields escalate tensions at the protests.
“We don’t see no riot here, take off your riot gear” is a favored refrain among the crowd. Hardesty says she, too, thinks police should dress in a more relaxed manner and ditch some of the protective equipment that can make demonstrations resemble a war zone. She says she would ask the bureau to revisit their uniform choices, such as riot gear, and move toward pared-down attire such as the polo shirts that bureau’s demonstration liaisons wear at protests.
Fewer officers at protests
Police have said that after months of funneling officers to stand guard at demonstrations, the force is too depleted to respond to all the 911 calls that come in. The Oregonian reported this month on a break-in that took police more than an hour and a half to respond to. Hardesty’s office said they’d want to reprioritize staffing to make addressing 911 calls the number one priority — not standing guard at popular protest spots such as the headquarters of the police union.
“One of the biggest problems I see with them is how they use their resources. They do not use them strategically,” Hardesty said. “They don’t need 30 people guarding their union building,”
A hiring freeze
The Portland Police Bureau isn’t taking applications for new hires right now right now. At the onset of the pandemic, the mayor instructed city bureaus to stop bringing on new people due to budget constraints.
But if Hardesty took charge, this freeze on new hires could outlast the pandemic. Hardesty says she doesn’t want people entering into “a dysfunctional bureau,” and she would order a short-term hiring freeze. During this time, her office said, it would need to figure out what positions it wants to hire for — and how big it wants the bureau to be. It doesn’t have a set number, but wants it smaller than the 882 sworn officers in the ranks right now.
Hardesty suggested she could thin the force, in part, through attrition.
“We have 48 officers that are retiring this month.,” she said. “And I know that if I had the police bureau, we’d probably have a bit more, which would be great.”
Truth and reconciliation committee
In South Africa, after the end of apartheid, a commission was established to address the trauma experienced by its Black citizens and heal a nation through restorative justice. After more than 100 days of protests — and a much longer history of mistrust between the police bureau and communities of color — Hardesty’s office says it’s thinking of trying something similar here in Portland.
Hardesty’s not the first to suggest it. While her office isn’t aware of any other city that’s tried this, in the wake of this year’s racial justice protests, some scholars have floated the idea of doing a national version to address the country’s long history of racism.
A social media ‘recalibration’
This summer, Portland police have regularly fired off updates on the bureau’s Twitter account, detailing where protesters marched, what orders were being given and what objects were hurled in their direction.
Some see the posts as occasionally crossing the line of what one might expect from the official account of a public agency. The bureau publicized a poster for a demonstration in July, vowing the call to march would “not go unanswered.” A memorable post pictured objects thrown at police, featuring a brick, a can of White Claw and a half-eaten apple. It was picked up by John Oliver, who called it “a less threatening display of weaponry than a summoning circle for those who died on day 3 of Burning Man.”
Hardesty’s office says it wants to “recalibrate” the social media strategy of the police bureau, particularly after the bureau’s response to the mayor’s rule banning CS gas. Hours after the announcement, the bureau sent out a press release decrying the decision of its boss.
Public records requests
When it comes to fulfilling public records requests, the Portland police bureau is one of the slowest bureaus in the city. A survey two years ago by the state’s Public Records Advisory Council showed the Portland police returned 8.9% of records requests within 15 business days. Other city bureaus had a return rate of 80% within the same time frame.
Things have not sped up since. The records office says the requests have come in at an unprecedented clip this summer and COVID-19 has exacerbated the lag time. Hardesty’s office says it hits the same delays when trying to get information from the bureau, and it wants to restructure the police records office so the public can get documents faster.
Mixed support for Hardesty’s plan
Hardesty says she hopes to make many of these changes in the first 30 days after being appointed police commissioner. After that, she says, she would shift her attention toward addressing the calls to reenvision public safety that protesters have been making on the streets all summer.
“By month two, we will be having significant conversations around the city about reimagining community safety,” she said. “I have ideas about what I think a safe community looks like. And they know, as I continue to talk to people all around the city of Portland, they have ideas about what real community safety looks like.”
Among protesters, Hardesty’s call to wrest control of the bureau from Wheeler, who has been widely reviled at the near-nightly gatherings, has been well-received. Her colleagues on the council have responded more tepidly.
The mayor has said Hardesty will have credibility issues with the force, pointing to unfounded allegations she made that police were setting fires to justify attacking protesters. Hardesty apologized the next day for the comments. But Wheeler has remained reluctant, saying she has been inconsistent in her desire for the bureau and this is a bad time to bring in a new boss. Commissioner Amanda Fritz released a statement in July saying the mayor had invested three and a half years in learning the bureau and it was not the right time for a leadership shakeup.
In an interview earlier this month with OPB, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, another vocal critic of the police , said she wanted to stay out of the debate, though added she believed the key to reforming the bureau may not rest with the person at top.
The city, she noted, had seen a revolving door of police chiefs in the last two decades and not a lot of dramatic change to show for it. Since 2010, the city has seen five chiefs come and go.
“I don’t think the public call to assign the bureau to her was helpful in this moment,” she said. “And while I think she could potentially be an effective police commissioner, I want to point out to everyone that we’ve had ... five mayors and six police commissioners and ten police chiefs and very little progress on reform.”
But Hardesty says she’d mark the start of a new era.
“The buck stops at the top of the police bureau,” she said. “And that’s the police commissioner.”