Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell on policing the city’s downtown

By Allison Frost (OPB)
June 6, 2023 12:11 a.m.

Lovell says the whole area is still in transition.

Police Chief Chuck Lovell pictured at a press conference Aug. 30, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

Police Chief Chuck Lovell pictured at a press conference Aug. 30, 2020, in Portland, Ore.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB


In downtown Portland, the economic recovery from the pandemic continues. But it’s anything but complete — with plenty of vandalism, property crime, and open-air drug markets still to be found.

Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell spoke with “Think Out Loud” about policing the Washington Center area, drug use, crime and other issues related to policing and public safety more broadly.

The following transcript of their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Dave Miller: How would you describe downtown Portland right now?

Chuck 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.

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 years ago as far as people around, but just a beautiful day to be out and about.

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

Lovell: 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: Well, 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 we talked to them about some of the challenges they were having and offered them some assistance. But as a city, we need downtown to be thriving. A place where people are spending money shopping, 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. And 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, 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 and a half percent 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, and 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 numbers and, 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, you know, this is a place I want to bring my family at night or at certain times?” I think that’s what you’re always trying to reconcile, 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 of being out and about and visible really speaks to the feeling people have, particularly in the downtown area.

Miller: Well, just to be clear, I mean, 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 or last year, seven times, I mean, you can understand why someone would, would feel frustrated,

Lovell: Right. Yeah, and I think, you know, it’s no secret. Our businesses, particularly in the downtown core, went through a lot during the pandemic. And then you throw in vandalism crime, costly repairs, 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. It’s gotten a lot of coverage in recent months. Willamette Week and 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, and 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. And there was a time where we went and we had almost a 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.

Miller: This is in the spring, just about two months ago?

Lovell: Yes. And 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: I’m glad you brought that up because I mean, you had mentioned Old Town earlier and the sense, again, 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 then city and police focus and then Central East Side 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. I mean, this really does seem like whack-a-mole. Is there, first of all, a new area right now that has not yet been on the cover of 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 criminal activity or troubling activity that people want to address. So, I mean, that’s a constant in the city to some degree.

Miller: We’re always gonna have some version of whack-a-mole?

Lovell: Well, I think you’re always going to have some places in the city where there’s activity taking place that rise to people’s radar and they, you know, talk about it. People write stories about it. I mean, 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: You know, the area I probably hear about the most right now is along 82nd Avenue. And it’s sex trafficking that’s really the topic there. And there’s an area along 82nd, I think right now 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 long standing issue. But you’re saying it remains so. But 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, and you know, for us, we’d love long-term solutions. You know, what is going to help people get out of this environment? What’s going to help people who are using, say fentanyl, in an open-air environment, what’s going to help them get to treatment and then to a better place ultimately in the future? And I think housing is an important piece. I think there’s a mental health component to a lot of it. And 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 seal a long-term solution.

Miller: Statewide, Measure 110 voters voted for 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: You know, 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.” And I think some of the question might be, “Are these citations the right vehicle to get people into treatment?” If you look at some of the numbers, you know your answer might be, “No.”

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

Lovell: They would have the option of a fine, a $100 fine or to call a hotline 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, I think infrequently would be the answer to both of those.

Miller: So in other words, 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, not just more people 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: Yeah, and I think it’s not just, you know, the police. 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 know, 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. And you know, 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, 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, you know 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 what we’d done in the past.

Miller: One of the things that stands out to me in the Washington Center story over the last couple 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. Conversations broke down. The Menashes didn’t pay for boarding up when they said they would.” It’s 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. And I don’t know the particulars around that whole situation as far as the permitting and the cleanup -

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: And I think, you know, 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, your Lyft driver, maybe someone that’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 want to 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 and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. We’ve done stolen vehicle missions with East (precinct). But we’ve also done street racing missions out of North (precinct). 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, 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 going to define where and when people can sleep outside. Portland’s doing that as well. What is that going to mean for the work of police officers?

Lovell: Well, I think it’ll remain to be seen as, as we get into it and we don’t want to criminalize homelessness. We’re sympathetic, empathetic. We feel like, you know, there’s a lot of people on our streets that we need to be helping. Helping them get to a better place. But on the flip side of that, we also have different rules that’ll have to be enforced as well. So we’re going to 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 going to be an opportunity for them to have several warnings, an opportunity for them to move, 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: Yeah, so we’re authorized 882, and that’s what we’re funded for. Presently, or as of July 1, 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’ve 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 (Department of Public Safety Standards and Training’s) Academy in Salem.

Miller: This Is the state training. What’s that delay caused by?

Lovell: You know, right now I think they’re working really hard to, to remedy that, but I think a lot of it started with Covid when they had to postpone some classes and then catch up and then figure out, you know, how they were going to you know, 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 ‘90s, and they’re all hitting retirement age right now. So it’s kind of two steps forward, one step back. But we are on a positive trajectory and we’re hoping to continue that. And 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.