The Portland City Council this week unanimously passed a drug criminalization ordinance crafted by Public Safety Commissioner Rene Gonzalez and Mayor Ted Wheeler. The measure bans the public use of drugs, contingent on a change in state law to allow such measures. City commissioners also voted to direct lobbyists to push for that state law change. Addressing public safety and homelessness were chief among the issues Gonzalez campaigned on. Earlier this year he made a controversial decision to prevent Portland Street Response from distributing tents and other supplies to people experiencing homelessness. The future of the popular PSR program has yet to be determined, with full funding for its ongoing operation yet to be identified. Gonzalez joins us to talk about his vision for a public safety system that serves all residents.
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. On Wednesday, the Portland City Council unanimously passed a drug use criminalization ordinance. It was crafted by Commissioner Rene Gonzalez and Mayor Ted Wheeler. The measure would ban the public use of drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine, if and this is a big if, the Oregon legislature changes a state law. The City Council also directed its lobbyists to push for that legislative change. Public safety and homelessness were among the top issues that Gonzalez campaigned on and likely the issues that swept him into office last November. He joins us now for an update on these priorities. Welcome back to the show. Welcome to our studio.
Rene Gonzalez: Thanks so much for having me. Great to be in person.
Miller: I want to start with this unanimous vote this week to prohibit the public use of drugs, if lawmakers change state law. Let’s say they do that and it’s entirely possible given where public sentiment is right now and also the fact that this quirk in state law seems to have caught a lot of Oregonians by surprise, including I think some lawmakers. Walk us through what you think would happen next.
Gonzalez: Well, it would allow Portland Police to book. So there’s intervention on public consumption, particularly intervention if that consumption is coming with other negative behaviors. I think that’s going to be the most likely scenario that they would initially interact. And the idea is ultimately, that people are getting treatment. I want to be crystal clear. This is a good criminalization step. But our goal is to get the people who need the treatment under our system. The court system has been an effective way to compel treatment in the past. Many will argue that volunteering is more efficient. I don’t necessarily dispute it, but this is another means to get people into treatment.
So, right now, because of the pandemic, our circuit courts were really clogged up. They have historically had a drug court diversion program, but when the court system sort of breaks down, you’re not getting those referrals. And we’re really hoping that once we have the ability to do this, we can start accelerating people going into drug courts which drives them to addiction services.
Miller: Do you think that Portland Police would focus on giving out these citations for public drug use that could lead to penalties of up to six months in jail or $500 fines? And that the DA would take up these cases would have enough resources to prioritize this level of infraction?
Gonzalez: I think it’s going to all remain to be seen. We’re little ways away from actually how this will be executed because the state legislature is really going to have two choices. They can go the route that we’ve gone with cannabis, which is still state preemption but prohibits public consumption at a state level. I think it’s a misdemeanor under state law. Or they allow cities to regulate this activity, which is the way alcohol is addressed. And so a little bit remains to be seen on which route the state legislature would go that will directly impact how we execute on this. But what’s important for police is the ability to book and usually that’s going hand-in-hand with some sort of public consumption, in conjunction with some other negative behaviors.
Miller: That’s your assumption from conversations with..
Gonzalez: Portland Police.
Miller: That in terms of the way they would prioritize enforcement, public use wouldn’t likely be enough for them to book?
Gonzalez: I think that it’s very important for them to have the right to book to intervene. But what we’ve seen with alcohol in particular and some of these others is they’re–given their priorities and competing demands on their resources–going to have to make decisions about when they intercede or not. And I foresee that there is likely to be something else going on with the public consumption. Bottom line though, the Portland Police will have the right after the state intercedes here to intervene in public consumption. That is the goal and that is a response to Portland voters. When police do it, I think some of that remains to be seen.
Miller: So let’s turn to the piece after the police part. When you were running for City Council, you said that you were going to bring back a municipal court, something that the city of Portland hasn’t had for many decades now. Theoretically, that could be the venue for processing these kinds of violations of a city ordinance. Are you still interested in doing that?
Gonzalez: So there’s still some technical pieces from municipal court under state law. As state law reads today, the city of Portland is the only city in the state that cannot enforce its own code in a municipal court. It can prosecute state level misdemeanors, but because of the way it was done in the seventies, the city of Portland cannot enforce its own code under a municipal court. That’s a technical piece that we’d like to address.
Miller: Just to be clear, it’s not like they go unpunished but it happens, at county courts.
Gonzalez: That’s right. You’d have to prosecute through Circuit Court. And so, we are continuing to evaluate that. I don’t think that there is the appetite of a majority of counselors at this point to spend the dollars at this point in time. But we’re continuing to evaluate the functioning of the Circuit Court, the DA and its ability to address low level property crimes. And we are continuing to keep it on the table. So we are evaluating. We saw some positive signs of the dialogue. We think it led directly to the vehicle theft and retail theft task force at the DAs level in conjunction with the Portland Police. So we’ve seen just the dialogue about it and the focus on property crimes has had some positive impacts, but we’re going to leave it on the table for sure.
Miller: I want to turn back to the vote itself and the idea behind this of criminalizing what once were illegal drugs, the use of them in the city of Portland. The counterargument that I’ve heard and that you have heard as well in testimony to City Council, I’m sure in other places, is that this won’t actually reduce the use of drugs that instead it will put that use behind closed doors or somehow make it less visible and that that could mean more fatal overdoses. What’s your response to that argument?
Gonzalez: First and foremost, this is a response to Portland that was outraged by public consumption, so witnessing in front of their children, breathing the fumes. This is a response to voters and our citizens reaching out to us with deep, deep concern about this. And frankly, the city and the community has a right to have a say on what goes on in the right of way. And that’s including whether that’s the user or the non user. We all have a stake in when it occurs in our common areas.
I would also submit that we’ve taken a number of steps in recent years including Measure 110 to destigmatize public drug use and we were promised if we destigmatize that that would lead to better health outcomes. We’re not seeing those better outcomes. Since we did stigmatize, we’re seeing exploding overdose deaths at the city, county and state level. Our 911 system is getting crushed. Portland Fire right now is on pace to see a 60% increase in overdose responses this year. That was after about 45% last year…
Miller: So I should say a lot of what you’re talking about is being seen, not in the public way, but those numbers, this is happening all over the country. Much of what you’re talking about is directly attributable to the fentanyl crisis, which is a national crisis.
Gonzalez: Particularly on the West Coast.
Miller: Yes, especially, but not just. There are Appalachian states where there are skyrocketing rates of overdoses for the same reason. What seems unique here is the visibility of it. I want to go back to what you said in your first answer to my question of why the public is asking for this.
I’m wondering if you just believe or don’t believe what advocates for what we have right now and for increased treatment as opposed to criminalization, what they say will lead to higher overdose rates. Do you disagree with that?
Gonzalez: I don’t think there’s data to support that argument right now. When we look at the West Coast and you look at even Portland prior to Measure 110. Measure 110 was a culmination of a long, long term trend in the city of Portland in the state of Oregon towards destigmatizing drug use. You look at Multnomah County bookings prior to Measure 110, we almost never book someone for possession. It was invariably connected to some sort of distribution or some other higher crime, right? So I don’t put everything on Measure 110 but it is emblematic of a trend. And I look through all that destigmatization. Treating addiction as a disease that has not led to better outcomes anywhere on the West Coast. From my vantage point, we are amidst a major national crisis and regional crisis on overdoses. That’s my push back. We have done what the advocate said we have destigmatized. We have allocated substantial dollars towards addiction services which I continue to fully support. That’s one part of Measure 110. I am all on board with putting as many dollars towards addiction services as we can, but it has not led to the positive health outcomes we were promised so I think it’s fair to push back on that.
Miller: I want to turn to Portland Street Response which is a part of the Portland Fire and Rescue which you oversee. It sends mental health workers, not police officers in response to 911 calls when people are in the middle of behavioral health crises but are not an immediate threat to themselves or others. According to data from Portland State University, it’s reduced police officer workloads for calls that police don’t often want to be responding to and it’s provided an alternative to overburdened emergency rooms. What do you see as the benefits of Portland Street Response?
Gonzalez: Well, it’s a great program to efficiently find non-police intervention for those in mental distress. And mobile response is finding another way to get people to de-escalate, ideally connecting them with services, although that sometimes is elusive, depending on whether the recipient is willing to take those services at that time. But it has added some efficiency in our system for certain types of police calls. The medical side is a little bit more elusive. We’re still working on actually trying to deepen their medical capabilities, deeper ties in with our program called CHAT, which is low acute medical outreach for Portland Fire.
Miller: Which is also a young, two-year old program which has two-person teams?
Gonzalez: That’s right, usually a paramedic and they’re alleviating things. I was on the ride along this week, an elder fall. They’re first on site, they avoid a four-person fire rig having to show up. They do the intake, relieve the pain, stabilize the injury, and prepare the patient for transport.
Miller: That seems really different from Portland Street Response, in terms of the overall intent of it and the kinds of calls that they’re meant to respond to.
Gonzalez: Yeah. So, just to be clear, they both fall under community health inside of Portland Fire. PSR was really on the behavioral health side and CHAT (Community Health Assess & Treat) is on the low acute medical side and these are both strains on our system. So they originally solved two separate problems. What we’re kind of seeing, however, is that merging the two together may have some real benefits.
Miller: In what way?
Gonzalez: Because often there’s a combination of behavioral health needs and low acuity medical that often one comes with the other at any given time.
Miller: So what’s your plan right now? Do you actually want to merge these two?
Gonzalez: The program I inherited, they were both under community health. They were already under the same sort of leadership inside of Portland Fire.
Miller: That’s different than saying that you’re going to combine them, they had the same boss.
Gonzalez: That’s right. And one of the first things we had to do, there was actually a vacancy when I walked into that into the role we filled out for consistent leadership over both programs. No, but what I’m saying is that CHAT has some low acute medical capabilities that can be advantageous for those on the street that are served by PSR. And often we have a paramedic which is the highest level of capability on the CHAT side that we’d like to see filled in through PSR.
Miller: You told OPB reporter Alex Zielinki earlier in the summer that you were not going to formally respond to that PSU report that I mentioned earlier until you heard the Fire Bureau’s analysis. It’s been a number of months now.
Have you gotten their analysis?
Gonzalez: I have gotten their analysis and whether I supplement it remains to be seen. In fact, it’s on Portland State’s website. They put up a Portland fire response. And we look to both to help inform policy going forward.
Miller: Well, what’s your overall take on that PSU report that was very positive and said this is really good, it should not be killed, it should not be slowed down, it should expand?
Gonzalez: Well, fully supportive of continuing the program and it actually has more financial resources this year than it did last year. All on board with that. There’s other elements that Portland Fire took some dispute with, in particular, the immediate push for 24-7. They were concerned about some of the structural pieces inside the program, if it was really ready to scale, like how you onboard people. We had some really deep concerns about attrition inside the program, whether they’re being trained. They weren’t complying with certain procurement policies, so just the things that a city program needs to comply with. It needed to fill some gaps, but right now the Portland Fire feels pretty strongly about the program and I think that makes it easier to expand going forward.
Miller: A number of people inside and outside city government now, including this PSU report, say that it would make sense to take Portland Street Response outside of Portland Fire and Rescue and put it in the pretty new community Safety Division, which among other things, oversees efforts to reduce gun violence and and also oversees homeless outreach programs. Would you support that?
Gonzalez: Well, there’s been a separate exercise going on inside the city to prepare for charter reform implementation and that will involve the sort of re-clustering of city bureaus. I have been waiting to see sort of the formal recommendation from that work to kind of make this decision or at least weigh in on it.
Some really important pieces here: So the Community Safety Division currently has responsibility for things like task sites and shelters and camp clean up on the one hand, and then on the other gun violence. It’s kind of a hodgepodge of a collection of programs that I’m not sure in the new form of government really makes sense for all of those things to be together. So kind of want to see how that all lays itself out and then we put PSR in the right place. I think we should always talk about whether it should have deeper ties with the county. They are the primary social welfare provider, very focused on behavioral health, they have…
Miller: And they have their own program which in some ways sounds a lot like PSR.
Gonzalez: There are some duplications. They do some things differently, but there are some duplications. They also have the ability to do Medicaid billing. So the city of Portland has never had to stand that up because historically, cities are not really recipients of Medicaid dollars. There’s some exceptions, but it’s very difficult for cities to qualify for that so they never built the capability to bill. And Senator Wyden’s office has made some efforts to make mobile response programs capable of getting Medicaid dollars.
Long term, whether it should sit outside a Fire, whether it should be part of the Joint Office on Homelessness or part of the county, we’re keeping that all on the table. I think those are a couple of years away, but we’ll see what comes back on charter reform implementation and then come up with a recommendation for where it should sit.
Miller: Before we say goodbye while we’re talking about the huge changes coming to city government because voters approve these changes in the same election that you won, you have a two-year term instead of a four year term, meaning if you want to represent Portland again, you’re going to have to run next year. Are you interested in running for mayor? Are you interested in running for a purely legislative seat on a much larger city council?
Gonzalez: We’re still working through that with my family, candidly. Right now, the purely legislative role is not particularly attractive. So it’s not really what I ran for initially. And so, all things are on the table. I want to be crystal clear, public service is a tremendous sacrifice for families. I think some things we knew going in, some things we didn’t. So we’re going to continue to evaluate our next steps.
Miller: But it sounds like right now, in terms of those jobs, if you were going to announce running for mayor, it seems more interesting to you than being a city councilor on a very different kind of city council?
Gonzalez: I would say that what I run for is very different from what would be available in 2025. I’d leave it at that but really all things are on the table for us right now. We’re on the clock. We’re going to have to make a decision soon and we’ll let you know as soon as we’ve made it.
Miller: Rene Gonzalez, thanks very much for coming in.
Gonzalez: Thanks so much, David.
Miller: Rene Gonzalez is one of the members of the Portland City Council.
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