Mayor Ted Wheeler is requesting that nearly 100 Oregon state troopers — a full fifth of the statewide total — be deployed in Portland to address crimes city police have said they are too overwhelmed to handle.
The suggestion is one of dozens Wheeler floated on Tuesday at the first meeting of a task force convened by Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek, which has a focus on reviving Portland’s central city. The effort is part of a scramble by Kotek and top business leaders to develop an “action plan” for curbing the city’s woes around crime, livability issues and a downtown core that has grown emptier since the pandemic.
“We want to see more foot traffic,” Kotek told reporters in a briefing after the meeting. “We want to see fewer overdoses.”
Meetings of Kotek’s new task force are closed to the public, which the governor said is important for its more than 40 members to have “frank, confidential conversations.” But Wheeler, a member of the group, was clear on Tuesday about what he hopes to see.
Amid bullet points shared by the mayor’s office are requests for major new state investments for cleaning up trash and graffiti, more money for the city’s large-scale outdoor shelters, clearing the way for downtown’s increasingly vacant office buildings to be converted to housing, and investing in an ad campaign “to improve Portland’s reputation.”
The proposals include more than $250 million in direct funding requests from the state and even more ideas that suggest non-specific state allocations. Many include expansions of efforts that are already underway, but which the mayor believes need more support to make effective.
For instance, Wheeler is asking the state to spend $12 million “to implement strategies that will keep encampments from returning to the same locations’' on state-owned land, an investment he believes “will save the State money in the long run as they will no longer need to send crews to the same locations over and over.” The proposal does not detail what strategies Wheeler has in mind.
But Wheeler’s suggestion of dedicating 96 state troopers to Portland is more novel and would reshape the law enforcement landscape as the city grapples with surging addiction and related crimes.
“OSP should open a branch office in downtown Portland for better-coordinated presence and enforcement,” Wheeler’s proposal reads. Under his vision, troopers could help Portland police deal with violent crime, property theft and hate crimes. The document also suggests troopers could help enforce traffic laws, a key issue as Portland has registered record traffic fatalities in recent years.
The suggestion might not be welcome by Oregon State Police, who perennially say they lack the workforce to sufficiently police state highways. The department’s patrol division has roughly 480 sworn officers and routinely has dozens of vacant budgeted positions. According to an agency presentation from February, the department had an average of 86 vacant positions over the past two years.
Wheeler is also calling for increased federal law enforcement presence in the city, according to the document, which was first reported by The Oregonian/OregonLive. Pete Cajigal, the acting U.S. Marshal for Oregon, told OPB on Tuesday that his office recently met with Wheeler about his “vision of law enforcement efforts within Portland.”
“We are committed to our community here in Portland and we will continue to offer all of our capabilities to our local partners,” Cajigal said in a statement.
But the mayor’s proposals, if they move forward, are all but certain to face pushback. Juan Chavez, an attorney with the Oregon Justice Resource Center and frequent police critic, told OPB the idea of calling in more law enforcement was a “deeply unserious response.”
“Mayor Wheeler continues to oversimplify the complexity of the problems our community faces,” Chavez said in an email. “While this call for more law enforcement may placate a particular segment of the community who continue to push fear and punishment rhetoric, it ignores what almost all experts say are durable solutions: more upstream investments; coordinating and implementing holistic and diverse strategies; and, treating every individual in our community with dignity.”
Wheeler offered opening remarks on Tuesday, as the central city task force met for the first time. And he made his pitch to an influential group.
Kotek announced on Aug. 9 she would convene a task force to come up with ideas for reviving the state’s struggling flagship city. But the governor’s office only released a roster of members on Tuesday morning, hours before the group was scheduled to convene for the first of three planned meetings.
The business-heavy 46-person roster includes representatives from many of Portland’s largest employers, civic groups, three members of the state’s congressional delegation, and an array of state and local officials. Kotek is chairing the body, alongside Dan McMillan, CEO of The Standard insurance company, which owns a skyscraper downtown.
The governor appeared next to McMillan shortly after the task force meeting ended. They described the session as a way for members to get on the same page. The group went over data by the firm ECONorthwest about how Portland stacks up against similar cities among various factors and laid out a number of committees that will take up topics like public safety, livability, unsheltered homelessness and taxes, Kotek said.
“Having a good foundation to make good decisions and really understand the situation that we’re in is critical,” McMillan said. “That’s where we wanted to start.”
The pair highlighted Portland’s problems bringing foot traffic back to downtown, and the need for the area to shift from a neighborhood dominated by hulking office buildings to a place where more people live.
“We have to rethink how we’ve been doing things because the world changed with the pandemic,” Kotek said. “Portland is going to change with it and we just need to figure out what those strategies are.”
But the group has an exceedingly short time to grapple with some exceedingly complex issues. The plan is to put forward recommendations by December when business leaders will meet for an annual “leadership summit” in Portland.
Kotek and McMillan signaled they were hoping to act on some priorities sooner, saying there would be a focus on publicizing “quick wins” that come out of the process. They declined to offer specifics.
Kotek has met regularly with Wheeler and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson since taking office, her calendars show. But she’s been repeatedly critical of the apparent inability of Portland’s leaders to address the city’s challenges.
Wheeler, in turn, has insisted the city needs more support from the state — a big piece of the case he made on Tuesday. The governor shied away from commenting on the particulars of Wheeler’s proposals, saying government alone was not going to solve the city’s challenges. But Kotek also didn’t signal she would block any piece of the mayor’s proposal.
“I never rule anything out,” she said.
OPB reporter Conrad Wilson contributed to this story.