Think Out Loud

Responding to drug trade, crime in downtown Portland

By Allison Frost (OPB)
June 1, 2023 11:35 p.m. Updated: June 5, 2023 7:56 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, June 5

Chuck Lovell was sworn in on June 11, 2020, as chief of the Portland Police Bureau.

Chuck Lovell was sworn in on June 11, 2020, as chief of the Portland Police Bureau.

Pool photo by Jaime Valdez/Pamplin Media Group


Downtown Portland has seen better days. Its recovery from the pandemic’s economic downturn and resulting vandalism has been uneven at best. The area continues to grapple with high numbers of homeless campers. In some areas, open drug use and gun violence threaten the survival of some local businesses. We’re joined in studio by Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell to discuss how strained local law enforcement officers are trying to stay on top of the high demand, and his plans for responding to crime downtown more broadly.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Downtown Portland has seen better days. Its recovery from the pandemic has been uneven and incomplete, leading to vandalism, property crime, and open-air drug markets. A number of small and large businesses have had enough. They’ve announced in recent months that they are leaving downtown. Chuck Lovell joins us to talk about where we are right now and the road ahead; he is the chief of the Portland Police Bureau. Welcome to the show.

Chief Chuck Lovell: Thanks, Dave.

Miller: How would you describe downtown Portland right now?

Lovell: I think downtown Portland right now is in a transition. I think we’re moving kind of into the post-pandemic era. I was walking around this morning with my deputy chief and one of our captains, and…

Miller: Dressed the way you are now… with the uniform on… you weren’t undercover?

Lovell: Nope. All three of us stopped in at some businesses, walked up to the square, talked with some folks from out of town and it’s just a great, normal day in Portland. It’s not as busy as it probably was a couple of years ago as far as people around, but just a beautiful day to be out and about

Miller: So a normal day. So you didn’t see overdoses. You didn’t see open-air drug dealing on your walk…

Lovell: No, no.

Miller: You didn’t see evidence of crime?

Lovell: No, I did not see even one tent, either. Just walking around, which was kind of surprising.

Miller: What has been going through your mind over the last year when you’d hear about a small store or a local coffee shop or a big retailer like REI saying they are leaving downtown Portland.

Lovell: It’s never something you want to see or hear. The mayor and I actually both met with REI earlier, maybe last year even, but I talked to them about some of the challenges they were having [and] offered them some assistance. As a city, we need downtown to be thriving. A place where people are spending money, shopping, and spending time, helps businesses. Which in turn, helps the city and its revenue and its growth. So it’s really hard when you see downtown having struggles.

Miller: What role do you think your bureau plays in that? I mean, there are a lot of moving pieces here. There’s also the DA’s Office, there is the Mayor’s office, other city bureaus, and then there’s city law enforcement. When you heard, for example, that REI was leaving, what did you think was the police’s role in that decision?

Lovell: Yeah, I think they stated a few different reasons why they were leaving. But I look at it from my perspective and my lens is around public safety. It’s crime and the fear of crime. I think that the best way we can address that as a police bureau is to have officers out visible when possible. We’ve really encouraged our officers in the central precinct area to spend more time outside of their cars. We do have a bike patrol that works downtown and I think for us it’s really that presence is what people really want to see from the Police Bureau. And to the extent that we can do it with our staffing, we’re trying to do more of it.

We can be really successful, I think, when we partner and we have some focus areas to work on. We did some work in Old Town, not too long ago, that was really successful and people were happy with [it]. But it’s like you stated, it’s really part of a partnership. The Police Bureau has a small role but there’s all these other partners that have a role to play as well.

Miller: According to FBI data, reports of violent crime decreased about 10.5% from 2021 to last year. Reports of property crime went down less. They went down about 2% last year - year to year. How do you square that with what people are seeing and what people are feeling?

Lovell: Yeah. I think a lot of times it is the feeling that people resonate with. Most people aren’t in the weeds as far as data and numbers and crime stats. But it’s like when I’m in this area, ‘how do I feel? Do I feel safe? Do I feel like this is a place I want to bring my family at night or, or at certain times?’ I think that’s what you’re always trying to reconcile – is the feeling. You can get data that says, ‘hey, crime’s down, this is getting better,’ but if people don’t feel it then it doesn’t matter as much. So I think really the presence, the being out and about and visible, really speaks to the feeling people have, particularly in the downtown area.

Miller: Well, just to be clear, we could talk about feeling. But if in 2021, you had to fix the glass in your storefront eight times and this year, you’ve had to fix it seven times, you can understand why someone would feel frustrated.

Lovell: Right. Yeah. I think it’s no secret that our businesses, particularly in the downtown core, went through a lot during the pandemic. Then you throw in vandalism, crime, costly repairs, and insurance. Some of them are paying a lot of money for security and those are real life impacts on businesses. So for us, we realize that, we want to make sure that we’re being as responsive as possible to their needs as well.

Miller: I want to turn to one block in particular that’s gotten a lot of coverage in recent months. Willamette Week and then The Oregonian have done a lot of reporting on the Washington Center – an abandoned commercial building that once was a bank. There were other things, right in the middle of downtown, that eventually turned into ‘an open air fentanyl market’ is the way it was described. Where does that area stand right now? Where is it on your list of priorities?

Lovell: You know, it was an area that became really problematic. I was hearing about it literally daily from meeting to meeting. There was a time where we went and we had almost 24 hour police presence there. The city was working with the owners to board it up and secure it. We had a day where we went in and cleared it out so they could facilitate some of that board up…

Miller: And this is just about two months ago?

Lovell: Yes. That area is much better right now, but we know it’s something we have to keep an eye on and sometimes when you move that type of activity it resurfaces somewhere else too. So we have to make sure that we’re mindful of that.

Miller: Well, I’m glad you brought that up because you had mentioned Old Town earlier and a year and a half ago that was talked about as a kind of ‘open air drug market’ and one of the epicenters of commercial concern and the city and police focus. Then [the] Central Eastside became a place for a so-called reset. Now we have just a little bit south, not that many blocks south of Old Town, the Washington Center. This really does seem like ‘whack a mole.’

First of all, is there a new area right now that has not yet been on the cover of a Willamette Week but is, as far as you’re concerned, the new center of concern?

Lovell: Not to the extent of that 4th and Washington area, but there’s always areas that kind of pop up on the radar that people are concerned about or where there’s activity, criminal activity or troubling activity that people want to address. So, I mean, that’s a constant in the city to some degree. But I think,...

Miller: [Interjecting] … I mean, we’re always gonna have some version of ‘whack a mole?’

Lovell: Well, I think you’re always gonna have some places in the city where there’s activity taking place that rise to peoples’ radar and they either talk about [or] people write stories about. I think throughout my career, that’s been the case.

Miller: So if it’s not as bad as Washington and 4th, what are the areas that come to mind when you’re describing this right now? What are the areas that you hear about the most right now?

Lovell: The area I probably hear about the most right now is along 82nd Avenue. Sex trafficking is really the topic there, and there’s an area along 82nd that I think right now is getting a lot of attention.

Miller: I should say that’s not new to listeners of our show for more than 10 years. That has been a longstanding issue. But you’re saying it remains so. I can’t help but think that going back to the ‘open air-drug dealing’ and the idea that that has sort of moved around as increased police presence has pushed it from place to place - that’s clearly not the best model for solving this issue. What do you see as a more systemic way to deal with this? So you’re not just chasing illegality from one block or one part of the city to another?


Lovell: Yeah. For us, we love long term solutions. What is gonna help people get out of this environment? What’s gonna help people who are using say, fentanyl in an open air environment, what’s gonna help them get to treatment and then to a better place ultimately in the future?

I think, to me, housing is an important piece. I think there’s a mental health component to a lot of it. I think addiction services are huge as well and I think the partners and the community groups and the people that do that work have to be efficient and effective at doing their role too. But it takes everyone kind of doing a lift in their own area of expertise to try to help see a long term solution.

Miller: Statewide Measure 110, voters who voted for it, decriminalizing the possession of federally illegal drugs - the  thinking was that instead of treating this as a criminal justice issue, it would be a behavioral health issue and that police officers would cite people and that would be a way to get them into beefed up treatment programs. We’re talking in June of 2023… has that worked so far, as many voters thought it would or hoped it would?

Lovell: I think it hasn’t worked to the satisfaction of a lot of people, from the input I get and the feedback I get. I think the aspiration, the goal of it was very good – to get people into treatment and do that. But I wonder if having the gift of hindsight now, being able to see it for a period of time, if people wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, maybe the way this is set up isn’t as effective as we’d like.’ I think some of the question might be is, are these citations the right vehicle to get people into treatment? If you look at some of the numbers, your answer might be ‘No.’

Miller: We should separate these things out because possession is what has been decriminalized but dealing it still is not. But what happens if a Portland police officer right now cites somebody for simple possession of fentanyl, in general?

Lovell: What happens is that they would have the option of a fine, a $100 fine, or to call a hotline a number for an intake and those are the two pathways there.

Miller: How often do people pay those fines? How often do people actually call those numbers?

Lovell: I don’t have the exact numbers for that, but I think ‘infrequently,’ would be the answer to both of them.

Miller: …to both of them?

Lovell: Yeah.

Miller: So, in other words, nothing. Often, nothing happens.

Lovell: Yeah. I would say it’s infrequent that people call and I don’t know the numbers on the fines, we could probably find that and get that to you. But, I would say it’s not happening on a regular basis.

Miller: What does that mean for the foot patrols that we were talking about that you mentioned earlier… you were saying that one of the ways that you think things have improved in specific blocks is more people, not just in cars, but getting out. Sometimes four officers walking together or officers on bicycles. But what does it mean if one of the chief ways that they’re interacting are citations that no one’s paying attention to?

Lovell: I think it’s not just the police too. There’s other people and partners who are working to address these situations. We have our role, but I think, for officers, it’s something where you’re given these tools or this set of parameters to work within and you figure out how to work within those. I know our Central Precinct has really focused on writing more of those citations in the last month. Our hope is to see what the outcome is.

We used to do a lot more street level drug missions when our narcotics and organized crime unit was bigger. That unit is scaled down now to help with patrol but they spend a lot of their time investigating overdoses as well. So the ability to really do the interdiction side when it comes to the dealing is a little bit diminished and a lot of our efforts around dealing kind of start typically with possession. So with that part being decriminalized, it makes that a little trickier.

Miller: Meaning you used to be able to flip somebody to go higher up on the chain and if you don’t have that leverage anymore, it’s harder to actually build cases and go after the bigger fish?

Lovell:  Essentially. Yeah, because you’re not starting with a crime per se. You’re starting with a citation or something that’s not criminal in nature. So your ability to do the next steps in investigation are a little different than we’ve done in the past.

Miller: One of the things that stands out to me in the Washington Center story over the last couple of months is the finger pointing. Some people say that the property owners, the Menashes, should have done more to prevent the building from essentially being taken over by drug dealers. They, in turn, blame Measure 110 or the lack of prosecutions or they say that they tried to talk with city officials in the Mayor’s Office or in other bureaus but were rebuffed. City officials say, ‘We’re eager to talk, we’re working…’ that this is... but conversations broke down. The Menashes didn’t pay for boarding up when they said they would have. It’s a sort of a mess of fingers all over the place, finger pointing.

But where does this leave the rest of us? I mean, residents, business owners, travelers, tourists. Where does this leave us?

Lovell: Yeah. I don’t know the particulars around that whole situation as far as the permitting and the clean up.

Miller: I appreciate it and I’m not even really asking about that one block. I’m trying to think more broadly about public safety in Portland right now.

Lovell: I think for us, particularly in the downtown core, we look at the overall impact that a safe, vibrant flourishing downtown has on not just the businesses that are there but the ancillary businesses like your Uber driver, Lyft driver, maybe someone’s got an AirBnB, their ability to actually run their business, make money and do what they’re trying to do. It’s all interconnected. So for us, we really wanna make sure we’re being as mindful as possible and that we’re partnering where we can.

We have been really successful doing a lot of missions in the downtown area, there’ve been a lot of organized retail crime missions. But we’ve done stolen vehicle operation missions on our East Precinct with partnerships with Gresham-Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. We’ve done stolen vehicle missions with East, but we’ve also done street racing missions out of North. We’ve gotten a lot of help from OSP and MCSO with those. So I think we’re looking to be as efficient and effective as possible through partnerships and kind of focus on areas that are of rising concern in the city.

Miller: We’ve been focusing on crime, but there is also the huge issue of homelessness and there is some overlap, but we really are also talking about independent or separate questions here. The city, because of a state law, every city in the state has to come up with ordinances that are gonna define where and when people can sleep outside – Portland is doing that as well. What is that gonna mean for the work of police officers?

Lovell: Well, I think it will remain to be seen as we get into it and we don’t want to criminalize homelessness. We’re sympathetic, empathetic. We feel like there’s a lot of people on our streets that we need to be helping them get to a better place. But on the flip side of that, we also have different rules that will have to be enforced as well. So we’re gonna play our part, depending on what that is. But at the end of the day, our role is really to facilitate the usage of streets and the areas where people can’t be. There’s gonna be an opportunity for them to have several warnings, an opportunity for them to move, [and] be offered services. But in the end, if it comes down to enforcing a particular rule or law, we’ll have to step up and do that.

Miller: What percentage of funded positions in the Portland Police Bureau right now are staffed right now? Even just a ballpark?

Lovell: So we’re authorized 882 and that’s what we’re funded for. Presently, or as of July 1st, I think we’ll be funded for 882. And right now, we have about 805, 807, kind of right in there.

Miller: That’s a higher percentage than I remember from recent years. So, hiring seems like it has been working.

Lovell: Yeah, so we had some success hiring. We’re finding good candidates. We’re bringing folks on at a pretty good rate right now. One of the hang ups that we’ve run into is there’s a delay in getting people into DPSST’s Academy in Salem. This is the state training.

Miller: What’s that delay caused by?

Lovell: Right now, I think, they’re working really hard to remedy that. I think a lot of it started with COVID when they had to postpone some classes and then catch up and then figure out how they were gonna navigate that tough situation. And then there’s a lot of need throughout the state of Oregon. There are a lot of agencies who need to get people through the Academy. And I think that’s creating the bulk of the backlog.

Miller: Do you have a projection for when you’ll be fully staffed? I mean, given what you actually are funded for?

Lovell: That’s hard to give a specific number because on one end we have the hiring, which is going well, but we also are coming into a time where we have a lot of people retiring. We brought on a lot of police officers in the nineties and they’re all hitting retirement age right now. So it’s kind of two steps forward, one step back. But we’re on a positive trajectory and we’re hoping to continue that, but it’s hard to give a number, but it’ll be some time.

Miller: Chief Lovell, thanks very much for coming. I appreciate it.

Lovell: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Miller: Chuck Lovell is the chief of the Portland Police Bureau.

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