After years of discussion, Portland is one step closer to hiring a team of 12 unarmed “public safety specialists” to respond to incidents that don’t require a uniformed police officer.
In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the City Council approved a change to the city’s labor agreement with the Portland Police Association, the union that represents rank-and-file officers.
The agreement lays out what the new unarmed safety specialists, known as PS3s, will do and how they’ll be trained.
The city says the specialists will wear khaki pants and carry pepper spray. They will drive their own specially marked cars to distinguish them from armed officers.
“They will go on walking patrols. They’ll attend your neighborhood meetings. They’ll generally serve as ambassadors of good will in the community,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said.
The PS3s will respond to a fairly narrow set of incidents, including thefts and break-ins without a suspect, minor traffic collisions that don’t involve injuries, and aiding police officers searching for missing children and elderly adults.
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They will also help police officers maintain equipment and write evidence reports, according to the agreement between the city and the union.
The unanimous vote should have been a victory lap for Wheeler, who eliminated the police bureau’s mounted patrol unit to free up funding for the positions in his first budget two years ago.
Instead, the mayor and his staff spent much of the hearing responding to public concerns that the positions were watered down during negotiations with the police union.
The Willamette Week reported that Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner said the specialists would not be responding to any public calls for service, and the weekly paper reported that the union views the positions as clerical desk jobs.
Commissioner Nick Fish asked the mayor’s staff to explain why, after months of bargaining for a written agreement, the city and the union still seemed to be at odds over the role.
“I actually don’t understand Daryl Turner’s position on specifically whether PS3s will be manning the front desk precincts. That issue was settled late last year,” said Nicole Grant, the mayor’s senior advisor on policing. “That quote caught us by surprise and is factually untrue.”
According to Grant, the specialists are precluded from preforming the work of front desk clerks for the bureau, because clerks are represented by another union, AFSCME, which would object.
Fish expressed concern that the union will try to undermine the new program.
“Are we setting ourselves up for endless disputes and grievances with PPA over exactly what is the job description?” he asked
Asked by Commissioner Chloe Eudaly whether the city had made any major concessions to the union, Grant replied that it had not.
Commissioner @ChloeEudalyPDX has cast a vote in favor of the agreement with the union & the new public safety specialist job, making it possible this could be an unexpectedly unanimous vote in support of the Mayor's policy.— Amelia Templeton (@ameliaOPB) December 5, 2018
Reached shortly after the council vote, Turner said he did not intend to suggest the PS3s would be on desk duty and said the Portland Police Association is not opposed to the new position.
Turner said they would be able to respond to calls "with no law enforcement nexus" if their supervisors, who will be sworn officers, approve it. He stressed their role responding to non-injury traffic collisions, and also suggested they could help out during public events like parades and marathons.
"We negotiated it, in our last contract, to be able to sit down and have these conversations, and come up with a position like this that would serve to assist police officers in non-law enforcement incidents, that don't take any law enforcement authority," Turner said.
The police union views the positions as a recruiting tool for college students and people contemplating a career in law enforcement, according to Turner.
"This is one way to get a little bit of experience being around law enforcement and being around what we do," he said.
The groundwork to create the positions was put in place shortly before Wheeler took office, during the last major contract negotiation with the police union in 2016.
Gresham, Bend and Eugene already employ similar unarmed officers.
While police policy votes often spark heated public debate in Portland, the council hearing was sparsely attended and few people testified.
Many who did attend said they wanted to see much deeper reforms at the bureau, and argued that fewer officers should carry guns.
"They're basically going to be enhanced desk clerks with pepper spray" said Dan Handleman of the grassroots group Portland Copwatch. "I think we in the community were hoping they were going to be doing more."
Unlike sworn officers, the safety specialists will not have the authority to make arrests, detain people, or enforce criminal statutes.
They will go through a six-week training program at the bureau, which will include report writing, driving safety and crisis intervention training.
The PS3s will not be required to be certified by the state's Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.
However, according to Wheeler, the safety specialists will be required to follow all police bureau rules and directives, and can be subject to investigation and discipline through the bureau's internal affairs department.