Portland’s leaders, beleaguered by multiple crises over the past two years, got a rare spot of good news last week: They’ll see an unexpected $62 million flow into city coffers thanks to a surprising jump in business license tax revenue.
Every City Council member is crafting their own ideas for how to spend the money. This week, Commissioner Mingus Mapps put his proposal on the table, one he predicts will be potentially the most contentious ask made during the upcoming budget monitoring process, as council members adjust the budget they approved in the summer.
At a time when many Portlanders say they want police out of the business of assisting people experiencing mental health crises, Mapps said he wants to expand the police unit responsible for doing just that: the Behavioral Health Unit.
Behavioral Health Response Teams, which are part of the unit, pair a police officer and a mental health clinician to assist people experiencing a mental health problem and connect them with mental and behavioral health services. The teams are currently work during the day Monday through Friday and take calls referred to them by officers on patrol.
In an interview with OPB, Mapps said he wants to use between $2 million to $4 million of the $62 million budget surplus to roughly double the size of the unit. He said his wish list includes expanding the number of these police teams from three to six and increasing the size of the unit’s service coordination team, the part responsible for connecting people with resources such as supportive housing and treatment for addiction.
His aides said they are considering the expansion of the program as a “pilot” and are still looking for a permanent funding source.
Mapps expects pushback from his colleagues. After calls last summer to cut police funding, the concept of funneling money back into the police bureau will likely prove unpopular among some factions of Portland already wary of the city reneging on their promises of dramatic changes within the police bureau. The city has also seen a groundswell of support recently for alternatives to armed officers, such as Portland Street Response, which dispatches unarmed first responders to 911 calls related to people experiencing homelessness or in a mental health crisis. The program was created with the explicit goal of reducing the interactions between police and vulnerable Portlanders.
Mapps said he supports expanding Portland Street Response in the upcoming budget talks. But he also believed the police bureau had a role to play in addressing the many people experiencing mental health crises on Portland’s streets, particularly people involved in the more dangerous calls involving weapons that Portland Street Response does not answer.
“It sounds like expanding the police department,” Mapps said. “But what we’re really doing is expanding the resources that the police department taps into to help people who are going through a mental health crisis. So it’s part of an effort to rebuild that new social safety net.”
Some advocates, as well as some police officers themselves, have said they want to see the bureau doing less work in the social services arena. Doubling the size of the police bureau’s Behavioral Health Unit, they argue, is moving backward.
“A larger issue here is that we’ve put so many resources and responsibilities fundamentally on the police when I don’t even think the police necessarily want those responsibilities ...” said Juan Chavez, a civil rights attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center. “We have to start the process of decoupling social services responses to the police,”
The Behavioral Health Unit was created in 2013 as part of the city’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice after federal regulators found Portland police officers often used excessive force on people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Chavez represents the mental health group Mental Health Alliance, a coalition of mental health advocates that has an amicus curie — or “friend of the court” — status in the settlement. Both he and mental health advocate Jason Renaud, who is part of the alliance, said it’s not clear how successfully the unit is serving people in crisis. They say the advisory meetings are closed to the public, and their requests for more information about the unit have been rebuffed.
“So often, the evidence we hear comes from the police bureau. It’s promotional information. We don’t see the data,” Renaud said. “I would be reluctant to add any more gusto to the police bureau until we have some evidence and transparency.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has spearheaded the creation of Portland Street Response, was out of the office Friday and not available for comment on the proposal. Commissioner Dan Ryan and Carmen Rubio did not respond by deadline.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who oversees the police bureau, said he was still making final decisions about what changes to make to the budget.
“My administration is working collaboratively with all Commissioners to ensure these funds go toward the most pressing, time-sensitive issues facing Portlanders today,” he said in a statement.
Mapps is pushing the mayor to include his request in a proposed budget that could be made public next week. Otherwise, Mapps said he’ll introduce it as an amendment to force a debate. It’s one of several he’s considering introducing related to policing.
Mapps also said he always wants to rehire recently retired police officers and request money for police body-worn cameras, both proposals that have recently been championed by the mayor.