Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Friday he hopes to reinstate a police bureau program to rehire recently retired police officers in an attempt to shore up the bureau’s staffing and help tackle a worsening gun violence crisis.
The program, known as retire/rehire, allows the bureau to hire recently retired officers who return to the force without their previous seniority and aren’t eligible for specialty units but are ready to take calls for service on day one. It is a short term way to rapidly increase staffing while the bureau works to train newly hired officers, according to the mayor. Wheeler said the officers will improve response times and help prevent burnout.
The bureau has 794 sworn officers - 59 of those in training - out of an allotted 916.
“We currently have about 80 officers who will be eligible in July to retire,” Police Chief Chuck Lovell said. “Instead of seeing them leave and our numbers decrease, it will allow us a vehicle to bring them back to keep them from leaving, and prevent what would essentially be a retirement cliff in July.”
The retire/rehire program was stopped last August because it is expensive. The rehired officers come back at the top pay level they reached before retiring. The rehired officers also draw their city retirement benefits while still paying into a state retirement fund.
The program depends on additional funding being approved during the fall budget cycle. Wheeler didn’t specify the exact amount he’d request, but said he would “prioritize bringing a recommendation to council to fund a significant number of retire/rehires immediately.”
Wheeler said he has asked for a longer term staffing strategy.
“I believe our police bureau is under-resourced,” Wheeler said. “I want an evidenced-based approach to how many officers we need to hire and what gaps we have in the bureau that currently need to be filled.”
Wheeler also said he plans to request money for police body-worn cameras this fall and that he wants to expand Portland Street Response.
The focus on staffing and gun violence comes as shootings and homicides continue to soar in Portland and nationwide.
Through the end of August, the Portland Police Bureau logged 837 shooting incidents and 60 homicides for the year. That’s compared to 488 shootings and 33 homicides at the same time last year.
Wheeler and Lovell have struggled to find an effective strategy to address the city’s surge in gun violence.
After disbanding the police bureau’s controversial Gun Violence Reduction Team last summer in response to overwhelming protester demands and longstanding criticism from Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Wheeler has incrementally brought back the team’s functions.
In February, the mayor announced the formation of the Enhanced Community Safety Team — a group of three sergeants, six detectives and 12 officers devoted to investigating gun crimes.
In March, those officers were federally deputized and joined a task force consisting of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In April, City Council quickly passed an ordinance without public input that allocated $6 million to address gun violence. That ordinance set aside more than $4 million for grants to nonprofits working with the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.
So far, just over $1 million has been distributed to community organizations working to reduce gun violence. Pending City Council approval, an additional $2 million will go out by the end of September. The final $1.4 million will be distributed soon after, according to Hayley Bonsley, Wheeler’s budget advisor.
“The funding specifically goes toward upstream interventions,” Wheeler said. “That would include things for youth who might be tempted to engage with affiliated groups or gangs … that could include educational opportunities, after-school opportunities, community and family support and help.”
The ordinance also gave $1.4 million to the city’s parks bureau to hire additional park rangers, who Commissioner Carmen Rubio said would be “unarmed, goodwill ambassadors” and the “eyes on the ground” in the city’s parks and surrounding neighborhoods.
Those rangers were also charged with developing a restorative justice program to be run through the city’s Code Hearings Office, rather than Multnomah County courts.
So far 10 of the 24 authorized park ranger positions have been filled. The parks bureau did not immediately provide an update on the restorative justice program.
Also in April, Wheeler announced the formation of the police bureau’s Focused Intervention Team, a group of officers and sergeants tasked with interrupting cycles of violence and retaliation that can cause one shooting to lead to many more. The bureau has struggled to get that team off the ground. A bureau spokesperson told OPB officers felt there was too much ambiguity around a civilian oversight group established to work with the team. Officers have also been reluctant to volunteer for a team similar to the GVRT which ended so acrimoniously last year.
There were 488 shootings between the end of April and August, a 48% increase from the year before.
That could soon change. The community oversight group will interview sergeants next week and officers soon after.
“We anticipate that the Focused Intervention Team will be fully staffed and activated by late November,” Wheeler said.
The national murder rate rose 25% in 2020 according to preliminary data from the FBI. There are signs, however, that the increasing homicide rate is slowing. Earlier this year, the homicide rate was up 22% in 85 cities with available data. Now, it’s up 10.6%.