A year after Portland City Council unanimously agreed to a historic funding cut to the Portland Police Bureau, Mayor Ted Wheeler said his colleagues have mostly united around a plan to funnel $5.2 million back to the bureau to beef up the city’s public safety response.
The proposal comes as the city grapples with a surge in shootings and a record number of homicides. With city leaders set to start publicly debating potential changes to the budget on Thursday, Wheeler made a pitch Wednesday to spend more to ramp up police recruitment efforts and equip officers with body cameras.
The mayor’s plan would offer signing bonuses to new officers, spend $2.7 million on body-worn cameras, and hire 200 additional sworn officers and 100 unarmed community safety specialists by 2024.
In total, the public safety package Wheeler proposed would cost the general fund over $7 million. The bulk would flow to the police bureau, which saw $15 million in cuts last year as a result of racial justice protests. Another $2.6 million would be divided between Portland Fire & Rescue, the Office of Violence Prevention and the Office of Management and Finance.
City officials are in the middle of deciding how to spend an unexpected surplus. The city discovered a better-than-expected return on local business license taxes this fall as big companies enjoyed unexpected profits during the pandemic. Under Portland rules, the city must reserve half of its unanticipated $62 million budget surplus on capital maintenance. The council has also committed $18 million to homeless services as part of a city-county agreement to pool their surpluses. The rest remains up for grabs.
Wheeler said he saw the general fund money as “an opportunity to stabilize” the city, which he argued could become increasingly violent without his suggested public safety investments.
The mayor’s plan includes spending:
- $400,000 to rehire 25 recently retired police officers for this year and another 25 next year,
- $448,000 to add new “public safety support specialists,” who would be police officers that provide unarmed response to low-level calls,
- $400,000 to hire an independent consultant to review police procedure on how to control crowds,
- $856,000 to stand up a “basic training academy” in the Portland area to speed up training for new officers,
- $2.65 million for body-worn cameras.
The mayor said he also plans to hire a civilian to oversee police training, a move the U.S. Department of Justice has encouraged, and to offer signing bonuses of up to $25,000 for the first 50 officers who qualify. The mayor said that aspect of the plan will still need to be part of contract talks with the union that represents police officers.
Wheeler said he believes he can get at least two other members of the City Council to support most of his proposal, which would allow it to pass.
The plan would likely have been politically impossible just a year ago, a time when the council unanimously voted to cut $15 million from the police bureau’s budget and demonstrators at nightly racial justice protests called for even deeper cuts. Wheeler, who had originally been against cutting the bureau’s funding, said then that his thinking on the matter had evolved.
But the city’s political climate has changed once again. Portland has been rocked by rising gun violence and violent crime. And with the election of commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan, there is more overall support for the police bureau on the council than there was for most of 2020.
“The players have changed, and I believe they’re willing to look at objective facts and make decisions based on objective facts,” Wheeler said.
The proposals could help the city in contentious negotiations with the Portland Police Association; city and union negotiators are now in their fourth month of closed-door mediation after failing to reach an agreement during the legally mandated 150 days of negotiations earlier this year.
The union has been adamant that the bureau is critically short staffed. Speaking before Wheeler’s press conference, Daryl Turner indicated Wheeler’s proposal may not be sufficient. Turner stepped down as PPA president on Tuesday after Portland Police Sgt. Aaron Schmautz was elected the union’s new president,
“If they’re 300 sworn police officers, yes,” Turner said when asked if he was optimistic. “If they’re a mixture of anything else, no. We need 300 sworn police officers.”
Turner said that until he sees a final number of funded sworn officer positions dried in ink, he won’t believe it.
Pressure from an anonymously backed group
The mayor is also facing pressure from an anonymously-funded campaign called People For Portland, which has rallied frustrated Portlanders around calls for more police. The campaign, which has refused to disclose its backers, has targeted Wheeler and dismissed his plan for 300 new officers as too minor to make a difference. The campaign’s activity so far has most been comprised of releasing a stream of television ads and social media posts depicting the city as dysfunctional and in need of new leadership. The campaign held its first town hall-style meeting on Tuesday evening.
Wheeler, who appeared at the event, said on Wednesday that he believed the campaign was drawing attention to the right issues: the proliferation of unsanctioned homeless camps and rising crime.
“It certainly highlights what I already know to be true,” he said. “They have certainly put the spotlight on these issues. They’ve certainly put a lot of pressure on local reelected officials. And I would expect them to continue to do so.”
The mayor also said he wants to see $1 million of the surplus go toward the citywide expansion of the Portland Street Response, a pilot program that dispatches a non-police response to 911 calls involving people experiencing homelessness or a mental health crisis. The program has been limited to the Lents neighborhood since its launch last February.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty announced Wednesday that the program would expand its boundary this week to encompass all of the police bureau’s east precinct and to begin working night shifts.
The program will now run a night team that takes calls Thursday through Sunday evenings. The day team will work 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Both teams will cover the 36-mile area within the bureau’s East Precinct.
OPB reporter Jonathan Levinson contributed to this story.