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Portland, Ore., leaders walk tightrope between calls to defund police, escalating violence

“I see it as a tremendous crisis. It’s not going to go away in a year or two," said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

After a year of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the city of Portland, Oregon, is grappling with an increasingly disgruntled police force amid an uptick in violent crime and continued calls to defund law enforcement agencies.

City leaders have scrambled to address both staffing shortages within the police department and reform demands by activists, walking a tightrope between those calling for a return to the status quo and others pushing for a demilitarized police department.

Last week, 50 police officers who volunteered for the city’s specialized crowd control unit resigned en masse from the rapid response team, citing a lack of support from city leaders. The move to disband the unit came one day after Portland Officer Cody Budworth was indicted and accused of striking a protester in the head last summer with a baton. It marked the first time a city police officer faced prosecution over striking or firing at someone during a protest, the Oregonian reported.

“I don’t think it is just an indictment that caused this to happen. I think it is a very long complicated history of things that have gone on over the last 14 months,” acting Portland Police Chief Chris Davis told reporters last week of the resignations.

But Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the city’s fire and rescue operations, said she opposes volunteer units and would prefer to recruit the best trained officers for specialized assignments.

“I’m not interested in adding people from what I consider is a very dysfunctional culture,” she said. “Why are we recruiting sharpshooters instead of people who grew up in the neighborhoods?”

Police arrest a protester as clashes during a march following the presidential election Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)Paula Bronstein / AP

The Department of Justice recently found that Portland police officers used force more than 6,000 times during a six-month window last year, some of which “deviated from force policy, and supervisors frequently validated individual uses of force with little or no discussion of reasonableness of the force used,” according to a February filing by U.S. attorneys for Oregon.

In November, a separate report by the city concluded that many of Portland’s officers had “not received any recent skills training in crowd management, de-escalation, procedural justice, crisis intervention, or other critical skills for preventing or minimizing the use of force.”

Tensions within the Portland Police Bureau boiled over earlier this year when 115 officers resigned or retired, leaving Oregon’s largest city with roughly 800 officers. The mass exodus was the largest seen in recent memory, according to the Oregonian, which first reported the story in April. In 31 exit interviews obtained by the newspaper, police officers said they were “overworked, overwhelmed and burned out” following budget cuts and anti-police sentiment from some community members and activists who continue to gather in downtown Portland.

“It’s definitely been a big hit to morale,” Portland Police Officer Krute Aroonsuck told Nightly News with Lester Holt. “Morale is at an all-time low.”

The precinct where Aroonsuck works remains boarded up more than a year after Floyd’s murder. At the height of Portland’s protests last summer, clashes with police became routinely violent with activists breaking windows and lobbing firecrackers at government buildings. Wooden planks were installed over the windows and doors of police precincts after the headquarters of the Portland Police Association, the union representing rank-and-file members, was repeatedly vandalized. Graffiti that reads “All cops are Chauvin” remains outside a county building.

Aroonsuck says it’s unfair that Portland police are blamed for what happened to Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We're being held responsible for the actions of an officer that's across the country,” he said. “I don't think that's fair. I don't think that's accurate.”

Across the country, police departments are seeing an unprecedented uptick in retirements and resignations. More than 180 sworn officers left the Seattle Police Department in 2020 and at least 66 have left in 2021, NBC affiliate KING5 reported. And more than 100 officers left the Minneapolis Police Department last year, doubling the city’s attrition rate, Minnesota Public Radio reported.

A survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum found a 45 percent increase in retirement rates among responding departments. Agencies also reported an 18 percent increase in resignations between April 2020 and March 2021.

“There are many departments that simply cannot deliver police work the way they were delivering before because of the resignations and early retirements,” said Maria Haberfeld, professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I see it as a tremendous crisis. It’s not going to go away in a year or two.”

Staffing problems with the Portland Police Bureau are not necessarily new. The city has grappled with the issue since at least 2019 when the department had some 130 vacancies. In an effort to recruit new members, the bureau changed everything from hiring requirements to grooming and tattoo standards.

According to a 2019 report by the city auditor, Portland’s police department spent nearly $16 million in fiscal year 2017-2018 on overtime alone due to staffing shortages. The auditor’s office concluded that “the reliance on overtime is costly and poses safety risks to officers and community members.”

The ongoing staffing shortages have forced city leaders to rethink how policing can be accomplished effectively. Earlier this week, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that police would no longer pursue low-level traffic violations, such as expired plates and broken headlights, unless there is an immediate public threat. Officers were also instructed to get recorded consent before searching a car.

Wheeler, who was re-elected to a second term in November, said the new directives were also an attempt to address racial disparities in traffic stops, which can become dangerous or even deadly. In Portland, Black people account for just 6 percent of city residents but 18 percent of all traffic stops.

“The goal of these two changes is to make our community safer and more equitable,” he said Tuesday.

Since clashes erupted last summer, Wheeler has often found himself in the crosshairs between police and activists. He was tear-gassed in July by federal agents during a standoff outside the federal courthouse and was repeatedly taunted or jeered by activists who mocked his handling of the nightly protests.

In the months since last summer’s chaos, city leaders cut $27 million from the police budget, vowing to instead fund community programs dedicated to curbing escalating gun violence. Last year's police budget of $229 million was about $10 million less than that of the previous year.

From January to May of this year, Portland police recorded more than 450 shootings compared to 200 during the same period in 2020, according to city data. There have been at least 42 homicides this year alone, worrying observers that Portland could surpass its record of 70 homicides set in 1987, The Associated Press reported.

The uptick in gun violence is similar to what other cities across the country are experiencing and has forced Portland officials to rethink its policing budget. Protesters from coast to coast have said they are exhausted with trying to change police behavior and would prefer to advance a more radical idea: “defund the police” by slashing budgets and offloading police functions to other municipal departments or community groups.

Hardesty, who has made police accountability a top priority, says she would like Portland to set up a truth and reconciliation commission similar to what was established in post-apartheid South Africa. The concept would include holding conversations within the police bureau and within communities to look at how policing has affected Portlanders, especially people of color, and what restorative actions can be done to repair relations between residents and police. This would also include recruiting new police from within the city itself rather than relying on former military members or officers from other departments, she said.

This year in Portland, because of escalating violence and subsequent pressure from the community, a one-time $6 million allocation was injected back into the police budget to help speed up recruiting and hiring within the police bureau.

“We’re running a Cadillac with a Volkswagen engine and there’s no way we can possibly continue to do that,” Turner said.

But Hardesty says there are “two mindsets" dominating the conversation around policing in Portland.

“One mindset is, 'let’s just flip the switch and go back to normal,'" she said. “There are some members of the City Council and certainly police that just want to pretend last year didn’t happen."

The other mindset, she said, requires reimagining the role of policing and being willing to change direction when the status quo is not working.