Portland is ready to ‘refund the police’ in the midst of record-breaking killings

PORTLAND, Ore – Night after night, hundreds of people marched in the streets of Oregon’s largest city, demanding racial justice after the murder of George Floyd by a white officer.

Among the rallying cries was “defund the police” – a call for elected officials to redistribute some law enforcement agencies elsewhere. In June 2020, Portland City Council and the mayor responded by cutting millions from the police budget.

Now, a year and a half later, officials are ready to partially restore these cuts. Portland City Council is considering about $ 5.2 million in police investment – adding to the budget of about $ 230 million – amid a record number of homicides, the city’s biggest shortage of police personnel in decades and reform recommendations from the US Department of Justice. A vote on Wednesday afternoon is scheduled.

“Many Portlanders no longer feel safe,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said. “And it is our duty, as leaders of this city, to act and deliver better results within our crisis response system.”

Portland is not the only liberal city talking about police spending. From New York City to Los Angeles – in cities that had some of the biggest Black Lives Matter protests, and some with an extensive history of police brutality – police departments see their finances partially restored in response to rising homicides, an exodus of officers and political pressure.

In the recent mayoral election, some winning candidates have promised to strengthen public safety budgets. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, voters rejected a proposal to replace the police department with a new department of public safety.

Although the call for action in three words was the starting point for communities to talk about how they want to be monitored, experts say the goals of “defusing the police” can be discussed. For some it means abolishing police departments, for others it is about cutting the budget for law enforcement, and for others it is about reform and accountability.

“The Defund-the-Polite movement spearheaded an opportunity for historically disenfranchised and historically under-resource communities to express their continued dissatisfaction with policing,” said Howard Henderson, Center for Justice Research Director at Texas Southern University.

For months, beginning in late May 2020, Portland – one of the whitest cities in America – was plagued by protests from Black Lives Matter almost every night. At the time, officials including Wheeler were criticized for what many described as an overly aggressive police force.

During the height of the protests, officers reported more than 6,000 uses of force. The Justice Department reprimanded the agency for its “abnormally high” dependence on violent tactics.

Portland police have a history of being combative. In 2014, the city and the Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement after a federal investigation found Portland officers used excessive force against people with mental illness. Some of Wheeler’s proposals on the table – including $ 2.7 million for body-worn cameras and hiring staff to assess the police department’s crowd control tactics – are to meet the Justice Department’s reform requirements.

During last year’s protests, Portlanders called for $ 50 million to be cut from the department’s budget, and the money went to community-driven initiatives.

The city council responded by cutting 15 million. An additional $ 12 million was cut due to pandemic-caused economic shortages. As a result, school resource officers, transit police and a gun violence reduction team – which turned out to be disproportionately targeted at Black Portland residents during traffic jams, were disbanded, according to a March 2018 audit.

Similar measures were taken elsewhere.

In the wake of protests, the Los Angeles City Council cut $ 150 million from the police budget and promised to put that money into other social services. Likewise, New York City lawmakers approved a $ 1 billion shift from police work to education and social services. At the time, the NYPD’s budget was about $ 6 billion, with billions more dollars in common urban spending such as pensions. Since the cut, however, concerns about crime have led to about $ 200 million in recovered funding.

Henderson says some of the loudest voices from the “defund” movement were not people in neighborhoods most affected by crime.

“The people who live in these high-crime communities…. They do not want to get rid of the police completely,” Henderson said. “What they want to do is get rid of bad police,”

In Portland, gun violence has disproportionately affected colored communities. Family members of homicide victims and advocates working with young gang members have questioned the cuts and called for greater police presence along with accountability and increased social services.

At the election in November, questions about when and where police are needed were at the forefront.

In Seattle, mayoral candidates who wanted to repay the police stumbled. In New York City, former police captain Eric Adams, who has not responded to calls to disprove police, was elected mayor.

In Minneapolis, Police Chief Medaria Arradondo has proposed a $ 192 million budget for 2022 that would restore funding to what it was before Floyd’s death. The proposed budget, to be voted on in December, includes funds to replace around 300 that have stopped since last year.

Similarly, in Portland, the police department is missing 128 officers. The mayor’s proposed plan will offer signature bonuses to new officers, fund a pension re-employment program and strengthen recruitment with the goal of hiring 200 more sworn officers and 100 unarmed community security officers by 2024 – which some proponents see as a meaningful reform victory and a compromise in defining police.

At the national level, homicides increased by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, based on FBI data. But in Portland, the deadly violence has increased faster than almost any major city, with an increase of 83% in homicides by 2020.

Aaron Chalfin, a criminologist from the University of Pennsylvania who has studied four decades of police budgets in major cities, says that 54% of the times cities hired more officers, the number of homicides dropped. Many factors come into play, including the number of officers and budgets, but also economic and mental problems caused by the pandemic, the economy, programs for young people and even street lighting.

“There are a million things that drive crime up and down,” Chalfin said.

Across the country, officials have used the “defund the police” movement to discuss police alternatives.

In Portland, it paved the way for City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty – the first black woman elected to the city council and the key architect behind the police reform plans – to create the Portland Street Response. The unarmed police alternative – consisting of a paramedic, mental health crisis assistant and peer support specialists – responds to non-emergency calls to people experiencing a crisis.

Henderson said because of “defund the police” a valuable national conversation was started.

“In the end, was that the best sentence? Maybe it was? Maybe it wasn’t?” said Henderson. “But at least we’re talking about it.”

Sara Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press / Report for the America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover topics.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.

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