Community Policing – Restoring the image of Portland’s Finest

Published in The Oregonian – November 21, 2006. The author is David Anderson, at the time a detective sergeant in the Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct. Not available elsewhere online.

This op ed is reproduced here as it was an initial response by the PPB to public criticism of individual officers and the Bureau after the brutal beating death of James Chasse.

Will 2007 be the year community policing died in the city of Portland? If 2006 is any indication, it’s a distinct possibility.

This has been a year of constant attacks in the media on law enforcement in this city. Sandwiched between coverage of flu pandemics, rainstorms and lost hikers were a stream of negative stories about local police. Coupled with a severe decline in police resources, this barrage of attacks has made it increasingly difficult to be a police officer in Portland and may well usher in the end of the community policing successes of the past decade.

Through the years, Portland has become more tolerant of crime and more permissive. Significant and influential segments of this city really don’t care for police officers. They’re viewed as brutal, under-trained knuckle-draggers who engage in racial profiling as a matter of routine. In this view, police officers are not motivated by an altruistic desire to help others and improve the community, but by dark motives that need to be exposed and corrected.

Several times this year members of the Portland City Council have engaged in open dialogue in support of this negative view of its own law enforcement professionals. But this negative depiction is completely contrary to any open-minded analysis of fact.

Crime in Portland is down 20 percent to 30 percent from two years ago. On the east side of town, burglary and other property crimes have dropped almost 60 percent in the past two years. The scourge of meth-related crimes in the city also has declined dramatically –admittedly with the help of extensive coverage of the epidemic by The Oregonian and local TV. But this drop in crime was not solely a result of news coverage. It required police officers who care about the community, who want to be proactive and connect with local neighborhood associations, business owners and citizens.

This reduction in crime has come at a time of incredible economic and population growth in Portland, while the number of police officers has not kept pace with that growth –with the full knowledge of the mayor and City Council.

In 1996, the Portland Police Bureau’s East Precinct was authorized to have a staff of 110 sworn officers to patrol the area mostly east of 82nd Avenue. According to city planners, in the past 10 years at least 10,000 living units were permitted and built in East Precinct. This infill increased the population of the precinct by a minimum of 24,000 people. These new residents created a commensurate demand on law enforcement resources, as they did on other social infrastructure such as water, sewers, streets and 9-1-1 calls for assistance. But police staffing levels have not kept pace with this growth. The number of sworn officers at East Precinct is 90 –20 fewer than in 1996. That is approximately 60 fewer officers than nationally accepted ratios show are required to meet basic community needs.

These factors affect the application and implementation of community policing. The average police officer has been asked to do more with less in this city for a decade. At the same time we have been faced with a constant negative background noise from the media. We are asked to take on more responsibility while being second-guessed and criticized at every step.

I’ve begun to notice that some of the finest of Portland’s finest are beginning to wonder if being a police officer in this city is worth it. And 2007 very well could be the year inscribed on the bottom of the tombstone belonging to community policing. With the help of the media, we could begin to restore the symbiotic relationship between law enforcement and the community that used to exist.