PORTLAND, Oregon — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said the city cannot choose between strengthening its police bureau and holding officers accountable during a city council meeting on Wednesday.
“That does not mean there should not be accountability. There should be that too," Wheeler said. "It's a ‘both and' ... it's not an ‘either or.’”
His remarks came after Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell presented the police bureau's annual report.
“At the Portland Police Bureau, I can say the challenges have been the most significant of our careers,” said Lovell.
The police bureau's 2021 report touched on the highest volume of car thefts in city history at 9,216. It mentioned the record 90 homicides, and Lovell mentioned another number — 229. He said between retirements and resignations, that's how many sworn officers have left the Police Bureau since July 2020.
“We've lost a great deal of historical and institutional knowledge,” said Lovell. “Even though we're talking about 2021, I can say that we continue to, most days, not meet our minimum staffing on the street.”
Lovell said the city has hired 37 sworn officers so far this year, and seven Public Safety Support Specialists. But a backlog at the state academy means it could take close to a year before those officers are on the streets, and crime isn't holding its breath. Wheeler acknowledged that.
“First responders need the tools, the resources, the training [and] the personnel to do their jobs effectively and safely,” said Wheeler. "The reason that so many of our firefighters and police officers are so burned out is we're asking them to do too much with the number of people we have on the streets. We're asking way too much of them."
The approach is a departure from the Summer of 2020. That's when Portland City Council voted to approve cutting $15 million from the police bureau, eliminating 84 sworn staff positions. The cuts came amid racial justice protests calling to defund the police. At the time, some feared the move would jeopardize public safety. On Wednesday, Wheeler indicated it's about looking forward.
“We have now acknowledged we have a staffing shortage. Let's stop talking about that. Let's stop talking about our inability to respond to crime in our community. Let’s stop advertising to criminals that they're going to get away with it because I don't believe that and I don't want them to,” said Wheeler. He went on to say, “We've got to figure out better ways to address this crisis. We have to be innovative. We have to bring in different types of people.”
Portland Police Association president, Sgt. Aaron Schmautz said he appreciated the mayor’s current approach during the meeting.
“What I was hearing him say today is, because of that reality on the ground, because of the fact that we cannot provide police service the way that we really want to yet because our staffing is so low, we need to build up other options,” said Schmautz. “We need to find ways to offload some of the work the police officers in the street are doing so that they can focus on the things that are really, really pressing.”
The mayor didn't propose anything specific on Wednesday, but said the city needs to ‘Run toward the crisis and come up with concrete solutions with what they've got right now.”