Broad defunding is not what we need for police reform
Community input, reasoned deliberation are required
Mark Wells and Stan Penkin
Wells is president of the Portland Public Safety Action Coalition, a community nonprofit focused on crime reduction, and lives in Gladstone. Penkin is former president and lives in Portland.
Gun violence is on the rise, and homicides in Portland spiked in July to a 30-year record. While such violence is increasing nationally, the timing could not have been worse, coinciding with Portland City Council’s “defunding” of Portland Police’s Gun Violence Reduction Team.
The Black Lives Matter movement has justifiably raised the issues of police abuse and lack of accountability. Reform and accountability measures are long overdue. However, shouldn’t true police reform be accomplished in a measured, deliberate and inclusive process with all relevant parties having a seat at the table?
Unfortunately, under the pressures of this heated moment, City Council, with limited deliberation or consideration of unintended consequences, reallocated $15 million from the police bureau. Thankfully, calls by some Portlanders to cut $50 million from the bureau’s budget without a fully thought out plan did not gain traction — for now.
The broad brush with which police are being painted ignores the fact that the vast majority of police officers are dedicated to serving the public and often risk their lives doing so. Attacking all police creates a greater level of mistrust than already exists and serves to break down order in our city. It’s no wonder the Portland Police Bureau saw 51 officers retire in August alone.
A minimum number of patrol officers is necessary if we are to have genuine community peacekeeping, but the bureau has been short-staffed for years. The current anti-police climate will further reduce the size and diminish the ability to recruit or retain good officers in years to come. Do not be surprised when you have an emergency and need a police response — they may not be there for you because they just aren’t there. Will that be an unintended consequence of heat of the moment decisions?
It’s time to lower the rhetoric and work together with a reasoned and deliberate approach to police reform. Allocating resources to addiction and mental health professionals, rather than relying on the police who are not trained in those areas, is a good start. A greater focus on establishing a viable Portland Street Response program is another move in the right direction.
In addition to police reform efforts, the Office of Community and Civic Life must resume training and funding of community-led public safety programs. Livability Teams, Apartment and Business Watch and neighborhood problem solving meetings helped teach communities to address neighbor disputes, code enforcement issues, animal-related complaints, noise and other issues themselves or by seeking help from appropriate service providers — not by going to police. Unfortunately, these programs were gutted by the city’s civic life office with little input from neighborhood groups.
The result has been to pull the rug out from under residents’ efforts to formally organize themselves in keeping their neighborhoods safe, connected and inclusive — without having to involve police. Eliminating the crime prevention programs has instead made us more dependent on calls to our understaffed police after crimes have occurred.
Now is the time to reestablish these programs and update them as needed to meet the growing diversity and needs of all Portlanders. Let’s take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to truly reshape our public safety system and ensure a city where everyone feels safe and supported.