Portland City Council sat through an afternoon of emotional testimony Wednesday as hundreds of people asked them to drastically reconsider how Portland funds its police force.
The current budget proposal would see over $246 million go toward the police bureau at a time when calls for radically changing the way public safety is handled mount nationwide and in Oregon.
“It’s simple — defund the Portland Police Bureau,” said Andrew Riley, an organizer for Unite Oregon, one of the first of more than 700 people who signed up to testify.
Unite Oregon has joined up with the Portland African American Leadership Forum with a list of demands the groups are urging the council to consider amid a national uprising over police brutality.
These demands include: reducing the bureau’s budget by $50 million and pledging to never increase the budget again, defunding the Special Emergency Reactions Team, known as SERT, and stopping cannabis tax funds from flowing into PPB’s budget. The groups are asking these funds, instead, be used as reparations for Portlanders harmed by the War on Drugs.
Over the afternoon of testimony, which stretched five hours, many who showed up to testify took the opportunity to tell the council of abuse they’d experienced at the hands of police.
“I’ve had my share of experiences with the police in my life and as a Black Latinx person I’ve been profiled, shamed, abused, dismissed, and I’ve been traumatized all because of my skin,” said one person who identified themselves as Switchblade Alvarez, a resident of the Buckman neighborhood.
“We need you to invest in the community services that can uplift and nurture the Black and brown community by defunding the PPB and other programs that rely on abuse and neglect of the Black and brown families that live here.”
City leaders were originally scheduled to vote on the budget Wednesday. But Mayor Ted Wheeler, whose mother died the night before, did not attend the meeting. The vote was pushed to Thursday. The council also decided to wait to introduce amendments they want to make to the proposed budget until then.
Most of the council has been outspoken about the changes they plan on introducing. Early in the week, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she wanted to defund school resource officers and the gun violence reduction team, eliminate eight positions on the SERT, stop the flow of cannabis tax funds to the police, and redirect nearly $5 million from the police bureau’s budget toward the Portland Street Response.
On Wednesday, Hardesty also said she wanted to introduce an amendment that would set aside $1 million for a Black leadership development program run by Black youth.
Hardesty remarked that in her three decades as an activist, in which she’s worked with 14 police chiefs and eight police commissioners, this feels like the first time the city appeared on the precipice of fundamental change.
“I can assure you the culture within the Portland Police Bureau has not changed one iota,” she said. “The changes that are going to be proposed by my colleagues, by Commissioner Eudaly by our incredible police commissioner Ted Wheeler will start the process of reimagining what community safety looks like.”
Hardesty said she was grateful to the mayor for the work he’d put in over the last two weeks to enact police reforms. The mayor has already announced he will pull armed guards from schools, defund the gun violence reduction team, and end the Police Bureau’s transit division — all changes long sought by Hardesty. Wheeler has also asked that $7 million from the police bureau’s budget and $5 million from city funds be redirected toward communities of color.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who appeared to be video conferencing from home where a large ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner hung in her doorway, said the number of emails she was getting from constituents about the police’s budget was approaching 63,000 — the equivalent of 10% of Portland’s population.
“There’s no time for equivocation or incrementalism,” she said. “The deaths of unarmed Black Portlanders are on our hands and, as such, we must take bold steps to defund and reshape the Portland Police Bureau.”
Like Hardesty and Wheeler, Eudaly has thrown her support behind ending school resource officers, the gun violence reduction team and the transit police. She also plans on asking for cannabis tax dollars to be redirected away from the police bureau and toward restorative justice grants from the Office of Community and Civic Life.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is retiring at the end of the year, said she wanted to wait and make her remarks on the budget Thursday. Unlike the other council members, who have made regular statements on the demonstrations, the police response and the policies they want to change, Fritz has remained comparatively quiet. After one testifier noted he hadn’t heard from the commissioner in a few days, Fritz said she’d posted a statement on her website and said she wanted to listen to the community before coming to a decision on how to vote.
Some used their two-minute time allotment Wednesday to say they believed the police’s response to the protests was indicative of the reason many testifiers wanted them disbanded: Officers were responding with excessive force, ultimately harming Portlanders they were supposed to be protecting.
“I want to express my disgust and embarrassment at the way PPB has brutalized protesters over the last two weeks,” said Northwest Portland resident Kevin Cherry. “Perhaps the silver lining here is that PPB’s actions have proven the protesters point over and over again — that policing brings violence and chaos and not safety and well-being.”
Debra Kolodny, the executive director of Portland United Against Hate, told the council the group had received 15 reports of excessive force used by the police on protesters.
“Four PUAH Steering Committee members, including myself, witnessed the unprovoked, instantaneous, violent escalation of police against protesters, who were simply chanting and shaking a fence and throwing a few water bottles where no humans were located,” she told the council. “Two of them were seriously injured by tear gas and projectiles.“
The city is currently facing a lawsuit over police use of tear gas.
Testimony will continue Thursday with two hours set aside for public comment. The council is expected to vote on the budget in the afternoon.