Last summer, the City Council disbanded the Portland police team focused on curbing gun violence.
As shootings and homicides spike to record levels, a new team envisioned to do proactive policing to get guns off the street with greater community oversight hasn’t materialized because less than a handful of officers have put in for the job.
And last week, the 50 members of the Police Bureau’s Rapid Response Team quit their riot control assignments en masse, a day after one of their colleagues was indicted on an assault charge stemming from force used during a protest last summer.
Operations at the Portland Police Bureau are in unprecedented disarray as leaders struggle to address the newest crisis while officers from the rank-and-file up to command staff actively seek jobs elsewhere.
There’s uncertainty about what future Portland police oversight will look like and a growing likelihood that the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2014 settlement with the city on police reforms is headed back before a judge after the city failed to comply with use of force reporting and other mandates.
Members of the crowd control team who resigned this week cited a laundry list of reasons, including lack of strong and steady leadership from the chief and police commissioner, mixed messages from City Hall on the handling of protests and future direction of policing, exacerbated by budget cuts and staff shortages.
Police Chief Chuck Lovell, who was tapped last June to rise from serving as an acting captain to lead the bureau, was asked to help bridge the divide between the community and the bureau in the early days of the racial reckoning.
Instead, he says, he has faced challenge after challenge.
“Most of this last year has really been about figuring out how to overcome some of these obstacles,” he said, talking to The Oregonian/OregonLive late Friday, shortly after arriving in the city after a flight from Florida where he was attending a week-long training.
“It’s tough to move forward when you’re really dealing with a lot of setbacks.”
Lovell, who has one year and a week as chief under his belt, said he’s committed to the Police Bureau but added, “I can only do so much. I don’t control budgets. I don’t control elected officials or the Department of Justice or anything like that.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner, pushed back on the characterization of the Police Bureau in “disarray.”
“I don’t believe that at all,” he said. “I believe it’s in a period of transformation.”
“Going forward, the relationship between police officers and the community they serve needs to change to account for additional transparency and accountability that the public demands, and I know they’re up to it.”
Police agencies nationwide are struggling amid calls to defund their agencies along with enhanced scrutiny in the wake of a massive social justice movement that sprang up after last year’s videotaped killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Yet no other city has experienced what Portland has — more than 100 consecutive nights of protests, including many that devolved into vandalism, arson, property damage and clashes with officers called in to disperse crowds.
“This group of officers has been at it for a long, long time,” said Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief. “In Portland, it became a way of life for the better part of a year.”
Frank Staub, a former Spokane police chief who is director of the National Police Foundation’s Center for Mass Violence Response Studies, likened a chief’s job to a three-legged stool that relies on the support of the community, elected officials and the officers sworn to serve the city.
“There’s tremendous strain between the department overall and the community. That leg of the chair is at least compromised. To lose the support of elected officials in the process, that further exacerbates it,” he said. “And to now have so much tension within from a team resigning en masse, the chief is really in an untenable situation right now.”
While the Rapid Response Team’s vote to disband was unprecedented in Portland, it followed similar moves taken by police riot control teams in Buffalo and Albuquerque this past year.
Portland’s team — made up of six squads of 12 officers specializing in crowd control tactics and other large-scale emergency maneuvers — was formed 20 years ago under former Chief Mark Kroeker.
He had pushed for the specialized team in 2001 to better handle chaotic crowds after police were criticized for using excessive force with confusing commands or responding too slowly with inadequate numbers of officers during a May Day demonstration and a New Year’s riot. The team was expected to provide a more coordinated, cohesive response to civil unrest.
With the Rapid Response Team no longer operating as a unit, the Police Bureau will instead pull officers from precinct patrols to fill mobile field forces to respond to large-scale protests or civil unrest that occurs, with backup from Oregon State Police, the chief said.
“We’re still trying to figure out what our deployment package would look like – as far as who would bring what, who’s available, and a lot of it depends on who’s working at a certain time and what tools they’re certified to carry,” Lovell said.
That could impact police response times to emergency calls, as the bureau relies more on patrol officers for crowd control.
Rapid Response Team officers will serve in their regular assignments – patrol and detective divisions — but also will likely be called on to help with the protests as they are trained to carry a broader array of less-lethal munitions.
Lt. Jacob Clark, commander of the Rapid Response Team, said the team’s resignation resulted from the bureau’s and city leaders’ failure to address systemic problems, and was not simply in response to the indictment of one of its officers last week.
On Tuesday, a Multnomah County grand jury returned an indictment against Officer Corey Budworth, who was charged with fourth-degree assault. He’s accused of striking a woman in the head with his baton after he’d already knocked her to the ground during an Aug. 18 protest. Another Rapid Response Team detective is under investigation for potential criminal charges.
The resignations of the team’s 50 officers, detectives and sergeants has drawn mixed reactions.
“While it is fully within the rights of officers to resign from the RRT, it is concerning that their resignations seemingly came in reaction to a grand jury indictment of one of their officers for striking a peaceful protester with a baton,” wrote four steering group members of the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing, a citizen police oversight group.
They said they’re concerned about “the message it communicates to our community around accountability.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who was the subject of an apparent leaked police dispatch about a caller who misidentified her as a suspect in a hit-and-run crash, has called for the bureau to formally disband the Rapid Response Team. She said its officers’ resignation is an example of a “rogue paramilitary organization” that’s unaccountable to elected officials or residents.
Police observers say they believe the team’s fear of facing potential criminal indictment for their crowd control actions, which has now materialized against one member, is what’s behind the officers’ decision to quit.
“It’s a sense of frustration that these demonstrations are a no-win proposition for everyone,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
Eugene O’Donnell, professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who began his career as a New York police officer and then worked as a prosecutor in Queens and Brooklyn said, “Cops are willing to be killed. They’re not going to be willing to be indicted.”
But the team’s message of, “we’ve had it,” by quitting causes greater friction and polarization with the community, Stamper argues.
“When these catalytic events happen, there’s a tendency to be ‘all for one and one for all,’ ” he said. “If I were working today and had been subjected to a better part of a year’s worth of frontline action, I might be feeling a little vulnerable and a little bitter. I understand that. But this isn’t the army. These officers weren’t drafted. They can leave at any time they want.”
Relations intact at the top
Wheeler and Deputy Chief Chris Davis sounded hopeful that the bureau will get through this latest difficulty.
The police command staff’s relationships with the mayor, the district attorney’s office and other policing partners are still intact, Davis said. “We’ll be able to work through these friction points like we do all the time,” he said.
“As an organization, we are resilient,” he said. “We work through problems, we confront issues, and we care about our people and we listen to them when they raise concerns.”
Yet Davis himself has applied for police chief jobs around the country. On Tuesday, the Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal reported that he’s one of four finalists to serve as the city’s next chief. He’s previously applied without success for chiefs’ jobs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Fresno, California. Last week, he told a community town hall in Akron that he wants to work there because its local government, police department and residents are engaged in productive conversations on reform.
Wheeler said the bumps the bureau is experiencing are par for the course.
“A change agent has to manage through an environment that, at some level, is going to piss everybody off,” he said. “I believe that is the right path and it will be a rocky one. There’s no question about it, there will be fits, there will be starts, there will be mistakes made.”
Yet some have questioned what Wheeler’s done to help lead the bureau through its difficulties.
“For about the last year, I’ve struggled to understand exactly who is in charge of the Portland Police Bureau,” said Eric Ward, a longtime civil rights strategist who has supported the mayor. “At no time, have I ever believed this police bureau was under elected civilian control.”
A path forward
Since July 1, 130 officers have left the bureau: 75 retired and 55 resigned. Another 88 officers will be eligible to retire next year. There are 104 vacancies now, with 812 current sworn members out of an authorized strength of 916.
“People cannot wait to get out of this department, and we have to stop that bleeding,” said Sgt. Ken Duilio, a former supervisor of the now-defunct Gun Violence Reduction Team.
But Lovell said he can’t offer incentives, such as bonuses, to try to keep officers from leaving. He said he needs to do more to make officers feel valued.
Lovell was an acting captain when he was named chief after former Chief Jami Resch suddenly stepped aside, saying she thought Lovell, who is Black, would be more effective leading the bureau at this time. Lovell, who was sworn in with little management experience, returned Friday from the second week of a three-week FBI National Executive Institute training program for law enforcement chiefs.
Some critics have complained that Lovell has been out of town during major police matters – for example, the Rapid Response Team’s vote to quit and the Lents Park police fatal shooting of Robert Delgado. The chief said the police shooting occurred when he was off on his honeymoon, which he had delayed last year. He said he’s been out of town three times as chief: two one-week trips for training and another vacation for his honeymoon.
He said he’s proud to have started Asian-Pacific Islander and Latino advisory councils in the bureau and is working to embed community members in the bureau’s training division. But his broader goal of building a program in which officers are assigned to neighborhoods to form relationships with residents and business owners to combat crime, can’t occur without proper funding, staffing or political support.
“When those things are in short supply,” he said, “it’s hard to implement those programs.”
He said he wants the community to hold officers accountable but also “uplift and support” officers who continue to “go out and do that really tough work.”
“You can want police reform without decimating your police bureau,” Lovell said.
However, community activist T. J. Browning fears the city won’t be able to address these issues for a “very long time,” noting it takes at least 18 months to hire and put a new officer on the street.
“We have a group of people that are overworked, understaffed, getting no direction from above and no support from below,” she said. “So who in their right mind would want that job?”
The chief and mayor remain optimistic they’ll be able to staff the new Focused Intervention Team to target gun violence sometime this summer, as the city already has recorded 45 homicides. The mayor also said he’s buoyed by the recent work of the district attorney to bring more felony charges against destructive demonstrators.
The city’s ongoing independent probe of potential political and racial bias within the bureau “will help us inform some of our steps going forward,” Wheeler added.
And the mayor strongly backs Lovell: “Being the police chief of Portland, Oregon is probably the toughest job in policing in America right now,” he said. “Because you have to walk that fine line between fighting hard for additional personnel and resources for an understaffed bureau, on the one hand, and making the kinds of needed changes and reforms that our community is demanding for accountability and transparency, on the other.”
— Maxine Bernstein
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