A city review of the Portland Police Bureau has found that about half of the arrests made in 2017-18 were of people without a fixed address.
The review, released Wednesday by the city auditor, supports previous reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive, which found that one in two people arrested by the bureau in 2017 was experiencing homelessness at the time of the arrest.
Following the newspaper's reporting last year, “the police commissioner and the mayor asked us to take a deeper look,” said KC Jones, a senior analyst with the city auditor’s Independent Police Review. “So we developed a review completely separate from [the bureau].”
The auditing team reviewed more than 700 arrest reports. Jones said the record system used by the bureau "doesn't accurately capture somebody's housing status," so analysts determined if a person was experiencing homelessness based on if they provided a street address at the time of arrest.
“The thing we really got into by looking at the police reports were how many of the arrests involved warrants,” said Jones, noting that 60% of homeless individuals arrested in their sample had outstanding arrest warrants.
Jones said it’s likely many people experiencing homelessness have been caught in a perpetual cycle, picked up by police for “things that if you did it inside it would not be illegal,” such as drinking alcohol or lighting a fire to cook food. And if they miss their court date, a warrant can be issued for their arrest.
“It’s hard enough to make a court date anyway,” he said. “And if you’re living outside, you get caught in this cycle.”
The report also found that expectations are unclear when it comes to enforcing laws on homeless individuals, particularly now that a separate city program has been created for the cleanup of homeless camps.
“Officers are given discretion in how they enforce low priority offenses,” the report reads, “but are not given guidance on how this discretion should be applied as part of an overall strategy in addressing homelessness.”
The review suggested the bureau provide officers with more direction on interacting with homeless individuals, coordinate with Multnomah County to reduce the use of “failure-to-appear” warrants, and collect better data on contact between the city’s police and its homeless population.
Officers aren't currently required to collect data on situations where they ask an individual to move off the sidewalk or refer them to a shelter, according to the review.
In a letter responding to the audit, Police Chief Danielle Outlaw noted that while the “report did not identify any actions by the Portland Police Bureau that criminalized persons experiencing houselessness,” the bureau believes the recommendations “can strengthen our existing policies and procedures.” The bureau also said it will meet with the mayor’s office within the month to “clarify the police’s role” in addressing the city’s homeless population.