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Portlanders recall last year's cuts when eyeing new police funding

Supporters and opponents alike appear to view the proposed police funding boost as a reversal of last year’s cuts. Is that an accurate perception?

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland City Council voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to adopt an updated budget that incorporates $62 million in unexpected one-time revenue and commits portions of it to boosting homeless services and staffing up the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).

The police initiative is notable because it comes amid a spike in gun violence this year and follows a round of cuts to PPB last year. Nearly 100 people testified at a public hearing last week, and several commenters indicated that they saw direct links between last year’s cuts and this year’s spike in gun crime, or between the cuts and the current proposed PPB funding boost.

“In June of 2020 you acceded to the demands of protesters and defunded the police. Unsurprisingly, crime skyrocketed,” said Drew Smith.

“Your dismissals of the requests and demands of thousands of Portlanders who flooded the streets last year to not give our money to the police, and to reallocate it to alternatives, is absolutely maddening,” said Alayna Windham.

Though opinions differed about the causes of the violence and the efficacy of increasing police funding, there appeared to be a common belief among those who spoke that the current funding proposal represents an attempt to partially undo – or make up for – last year’s cuts.

RELATED: Police, homeless service budget proposals draw four hours of public testimony

Is that perception accurate? It’s complicated. Let’s break down the numbers.

The $15 million cut

The City Council’s 2020-21 budget – adopted in June 2020 – included a $15 million package of cuts to PPB that resulted in the elimination of 84 sworn staff positions. Mayor Ted Wheeler and other commissioners linked the cuts to the racial justice protests and calls to defund the police following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans at the hands of police.

It’s worth noting that PPB was already headed for cuts before police reform became a driving factor. Faced with a $75 million revenue shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wheeler initially proposed a roughly $5 million package of direct cuts to PPB, which did not reduce staff levels but did include some big-ticket cuts such as eliminating funding for the city’s $1.8 million body-worn camera pilot program.

The addition of the $15 million package of cuts brought PPB’s 2020-21 budget down from an initial baseline estimate of $248.3 million to a final total of $229.5 million.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Gun Violence Reduction Team: $5.4 million cut, 38 positions cut, program eliminated.
  • School Resource Officer Program: $1.9 million cut, 14 positions cut, program eliminated.
  • Special Emergency Reactions Team: $1.1 million cut, 8 positions cut, program maintained.
  • Transit Division: $4.3 million cut, 24 positions cut, program eliminated.
  • Traffic Division: $2.3 million cut in Recreational Cannabis Tax funding.

The large number of ongoing PPB vacancies meant that no sworn officers were laid off due to the cuts, although eight non-sworn staff were laid off, according to a September 2020 report in The Portland Tribune. The Portland Police Association said last month that there were 794 sworn positions filled out of 916 available.

Much of the funding was reallocated rather than cut altogether. Here’s where that money went:

  • Portland Street Response: $4.8 million.
  • Black Youth Leadership Development Initiative: $1 million.
  • Participatory budgeting process with the houseless community: $1 million.
  • Adding a Tribal Liaison position in the Office of Government Relations: $68,389.
  • Adding a Civil Rights Title VI Program position in the Office of Equity and Human Rights: $56,528.
  • Contingency for future allocation: $1.47 million.
  • Civic Life for Social Equity Grants: $453,000 in Recreational Cannabis Tax resources.
  • Contingency for future allocation: $1.85 million in Recreational Cannabis Tax resources.

There have been no major police budget shake-ups since then. The council voted down a proposal to cut an additional $18 million in November 2020, although Wheeler’s proposed 2021-22 budget did include a net cut of roughly $3 million to PPB’s baseline budget due to another revenue shortfall. 

The final version, adopted in May, put the police budget at roughly $230 million for the current fiscal year.

The $5 million boost

The current funding initiative, proposed by Wheeler, would devote about $8.3 million to public safety initiatives including about $5 million that would go to PPB, with the remainder going through other departments including Portland Fire & Rescue, the Community Safety Division of the Office of Management and Finance and the mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention.

The allocations are part of a package of police investments that Wheeler announced earlier this month, including an ambitious goal to hire 300 new PPB staff in the next three years – 200 armed officers and 100 unarmed Public Safety Support Specialists (PS3s).

Here’s the breakdown of Wheeler’s proposal:

  • Body-worn cameras for police: $2.65 million.
  • Portland Street Response: $1.08 million.
  • Expand 3-1-1 program: $950,000.
  • Increase the number of unarmed PS3s: $448,257.
  • Increase Community Safety Division capacity: $442,397.
  • Fund independent assessment of the city’s crowd control procedures: $300,000.
  • Hire a Dean of Police Education and Training, plus support positions and needed technology: $267,692.
  • Increase capacity of Office of Violence Prevention: $225,000.
  • Funding for gun violence support services for impacted families through the Office of Violence Prevention: $105,000.
  • Development of a stronger countywide gun violence reduction plan: $100,000.
  • Create a local Basic Training Academy in partnership with the state: $756,000.
  • Implement a retire-rehire program: $448,257.
  • Develop a 5-year PPB staffing reform plan: $300,000.
  • Increase the number of background investigators to speed up the hiring of new PS3s: $220,000.

RELATED: Justice Department outlines how Portland police officers should use body cameras

Walk-back?

So, is this a reversal? In terms of PPB’s budget and staff counts, technically yes – but there are a lot of extenuating factors. 

For starters, the fall budget adjustment only adds seven positions to PPB compared with 88 eliminated by the cuts – although again, it’s worth remembering that no sworn officers were actually laid off due to the cuts.

Wheeler’s longer-term plans call for recruiting 200 officers and 100 community safety specialists in the next three years, but Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty noted during Wednesday's meeting that the allocations in the fall budget adjustment don't fund new officer positions.

Additionally, the department is currently facing more than 120 vacancies and another 80 officers are eligible for retirement next year, so even if Wheeler achieves the staffing target, it’s unclear whether those hires would increase the bureau’s maximum number of positions.

“The overall goal is to hire 300 police officers over the next three years, and that’s an over-encompassing number,” said Wheeler spokesman Cody Bowman. “That’s what experts and what our team has told us would be an adequate staffing number. That does include the vacancies, that includes all of it.”

The body camera issue could also be seen as a reversal – last year’s budget cut the pilot program while this year’s adjustment commits to funding cameras for the whole department – but the cut was a separate COVID-related adjustment rather than part of the $15 million police reform initiative.

The situation has also changed in the past year, with the U.S. Department of Justice now leaning on the city to implement body cameras in order to get back into compliance with a 2014 use-of-force settlement.

RELATED: Justice Department outlines how Portland police officers should use body cameras

The cuts disbanded three PPB units: The School Resource Officer Program, the Transit Team and the Gun Violence Reduction Team. The boost proposal wouldn’t restore any of those units, but Wheeler and PPB did create a new group this year to tackle gun violence called the Focused Intervention Team, which operates under a community oversight group – although PPB has struggled to fill the team’s ranks.

However, while the Gun Violence Reduction Team had a $5.4 million budget that was cut as part of last year’s package, the fall boost proposal wouldn’t add any new funding for the Focused Intervention Team.

One area where it’s clearly not a reversal: Portland Street Response. Nearly a third of last year’s cut funding was reallocated to the program, and the adjustment funding package commits $1.8 million (applied through Portland Fire & Rescue rather than PPB), coming at a time when the program is poised to expand citywide.

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