For the second time since racial justice protests erupted in Portland, the City Council weighed whether to pull a significant chunk of funding from the police bureau’s budget.
After a marathon session of public testimony that stretched from 3 p.m. until after 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Council ultimately decided not to vote on the matter with a majority of council members saying they needed more time to mull over the budget adjustments. The most significant amendment under discussion was crafted by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and would pull $18 million from the police bureau.
The decision to push the vote upset Hardesty, who had been adamant throughout the afternoon she did not want a vote on her proposal pushed to next week.
“I see it as a very cowardly move to put this vote off until after the election — because that’s exactly what it is. The public came in droves tonight,” Hardesty said at the end of the council session after it became clear there would not be a vote Wednesday. “I am a bit disgusted tonight with the lack of courage of this Council.”
Hardesty appeared to exit the Zoom meeting shortly after these remarks and was not present minutes later when the Council officially voted to push the decision to next week.
The Council had unanimously approved a budget in June that cut $15 million from the police, leaving the bureau with $229.5 million for this fiscal year. With calls to make further cuts to the police bureau persisting into October, Hardesty jumped on the fall budget monitoring process — typically a time to make small tweaks to the budget approved in the summer — as a chance to make these demands for further defunding a reality.
Hardesty’s proposal would claw back an additional $18 million from the police bureau’s budget and move the money largely toward the city’s COVID-19 response. The proposal had the support of Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, whose office worked with Hardesty on crafting the cuts. Eudaly is running for reelection.
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who is also running for reelection, and Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Ryan all said they wanted more time to consider the budget amendments and pose questions to Hardesty’s office.
Wheeler and Fritz have said in the past they believe the fall budget review is not the time for dramatic rewriting of the city budget. This led many to focus their attention on the new commissioner. Throughout the session, many testifying directly addressed Ryan, who started his term in September and is the likely swing vote on the police budget cuts. On the eve of the budget vote, a crowd of protesters marched to his home to convince the commissioner to support the cuts. After protesters announced themselves with chants of “Dan Ryan don’t be a villain, defund PPB by $18 million,” Ryan listened in front of his home for nearly an hour.
After sitting through hours of testimony, Ryan said he wasn’t ready to make a major vote.
“I don’t want to be rushed out right now,” he said, comparing the push to vote to the manner in which the U.S. Senate had confirmed Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett a week before election day.
“I think most Portlanders would agree on the fact they made a rushed vote on a Supreme Court justice a week before the election. And so why would I want to be part of a government that does that in Portland?” he said. “I think it’s sensible to respond, to reflect and to be reflective and not be reactionary at this time.”
Hardesty’s initial proposal had detailed specific programs and practices she wanted to see cut from the bureau. Among other changes, Hardesty was looking to pull funding from the Rapid Response Team, which is responsible for crowd control, and SERT, the city’s version of a SWAT team, according to a memo she sent out to her colleagues last week.
Other offices raised concerns about how the commissioner calculated the numbers and arrived at the $18 million figure. On Tuesday, Hardesty’s office decided to ditch the line items dictating what funding streams to pull but kept the final tally. Her amendment introduced Wednesday proposed pulling $18 million in funding but left up to the police bureau and commissioner how to make the cuts.
The council members did not seem clear on whether the cuts would lead to layoffs within the police bureau. The mayor, who would need to figure out where to find the $18 million as police commissioner, seemed unsure whether a significant cut to the police this late in the fiscal year would force layoffs. In the middle of the council session, Wheeler asked city budget director Jessica Kinard to look into it. Eudaly said during the session the proposed cuts would not result in layoffs and would only cull positions already left vacant from the wave of retirements the bureau saw in August.
Hardesty’s amendment doesn’t dictate where exactly the money should come from within the police bureau’s budget, but it does specify where the money should be sent. According to her office, the money would largely go toward responding to the economic fallout of the pandemic. The biggest reinvestments include roughly $7.5 million to stand up a program in the Portland Housing Bureau to provide legal assistance for Portland tenants fighting eviction, $7.4 million for food assistance, $1 million for a hygiene station program and another $1 million for outdoor shelters.
These would all be one-time funds. After this fiscal year, the amendment directs $1 million to a fund to develop Latino youth leadership and another $2.5 million to Portland Street Response annually. City leaders hope the latter program, spearheaded by Hardesty, will provide the city an alternative way to respond to people in crisis without involving police. The remaining $14.5 million would be set aside for other city needs.
A majority of people who testified to Council Wednesday spoke in support of Hardesty’s cuts, many pointing to months of police response to racial justice protests as exemplifying a police department on the wrong course. Police are expected to go more than $1 million over their approved annual budget due to overtime. At the same time the city has been slapped with more than a dozen lawsuits. According to Chief Deputy City Attorney Robert Taylor, who gave a rundown Wednesday on the uptick in workload at the attorney’s office, 18 lawsuits have been filed against the city as a result of protests and they expect more to come.
“It seems that the status quo — protesters being beaten, Black life being snuffed out, houseless people being harassed and arrested, and people with mental illness being sentenced to death by PPB — are the norms you have accepted. I refuse to accept these norms,” said Lamarra Haynes, with Imagine Black, formerly known as the Portland African American Leadership Forum. “People rising up in this city refuse to accept.”
Portland mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone also testified in support of the funding cuts, urging the Council to “stop wasting money on militarized police who gas family in their homes and kill Black and Indigenous people without accountability.” Iannarone had originally been scheduled to debate Wheeler and write-in candidate Teressa Raiford Wednesday night. The event was ultimately canceled, allowing the session to stretch into the evening.
Loretta Smith, a former Multnomah County Commissioner who recently ran against Ryan for the seat on Council, also made an appearance Wednesday, letting all Portlanders tuning in know that, should they have voted her into office, they would have had a third vote for further police defunding. Smith said the matter “would have been settled” as she would have supported Hardesty’s amendments and would have called for cutting an additional $17 million from the police bureau.
“The fact that, as we grapple with yet another unjustified killing of a Black man by a police department, people of color are tasked today with further debating our humanity and right to be free from state-sponsored violence to a Council that is 80 percent white, is absolutely breathtaking” she said.
A number of people who spoke Wednesday expressed concerns that further cuts would further destabilize the bureau at an already volatile time for the city. Last month, the city saw 110 shootings compared with 32 during September 2019, according to the bureau’s statistics.
“Let’s not mince words. This vote puts lives at stake,” said Vadim Mozyrsky, a member of the Citizen Review Committee, a volunteer police advisory board. “You would not cut the firefighter budget in the middle of a raging inferno with the promise that fewer fire fighters will somehow result in fewer fires. We are in the midst of such an inferno.
“When casting your vote, think of crime victims and their families,” he continued.
Others urged more support for the Office of Violence Prevention, which assists the victims of police violence and their families. Some testified asking their city leaders to work more collaboratively.
“The problem with this city is you guys are beefing with the cops. The cops are beefing with you guys. And it trickles down to all of us,” testified resident Damon Hickock. “You as city leaders need to focus on healing this city. It can’t be this big pissing contest between you and the police. It’s just not working for us regular folk.”
The funding cuts would come at a time when the bureau says it is already short-staffed after a wave of retirements and stretched thin from months of protest response. The Portland Police Association, the union for rank-and-file officers, has already come out against the cuts, linking the past round of funding cuts with a recent spike in shootings and arguing the bureau needed more money to enact reforms.
Hardesty and Eudaly have pushed back against the assertion that the recent rise in gun violence is related to disbanding the Gun Violence Reduction Team. They noted that gun violence is spiking across the nation and argued the trend is far too new to be able to say with any certainty what’s behind it.
While Hardesty and Eudaly have pushed to use the vote as a chance to shake up the police bureau, the mayor has proposed his own more modest slate of changes. These include combining $1.5 million from the police bureau’s budget with $1.9 million coming from cannabis tax revenue and putting the money in assistance for Black Portlanders. Another $125,000 would go to create a new position in the Office of Equity and Human Rights to support LGBTQIA+ Portlanders.
At the end of the council session, Wheeler signaled he was supportive of the part of Hardesty’s amendments that saw money flow to rent support, food assistance and other forms of COVID-19 relief. He just wasn’t sure the police bureau was the place to get that money.
“I personally support the reinvestment. It’s the other side of the question that I have questions on. What’s the impact to public safety, to response time, to the staffing of cuts that are proposed?" Wheeler said. "That’s where my head space is right now.”
A vote on the amendments will take place next week after the election. A final vote on the budget is expected to take the place the week after.