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Commissioner Hardesty Q & A on Gun Violence, Police, and Community Safety

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Last week the Oregonian Editorial board sent each Council office a series of important questions in advance of an opinion piece they published on Sunday about Portland's response to gun violence and community safety. This is an incredibly important conversation and these questions have complex answers. For the sake of transparency and so Portlanders know how I'm thinking about these issues, I wanted to share the entirety of my answers to those questions, which can be read below. 

Oregonian: From my understanding, as of late August, the city has filled only two of the new park ranger positions, the FIT has had great difficulty recruiting officers and the city still has not disbursed millions in funding to community partners. What is the commissioner’s assessment of how the gun strategy adopted earlier this year is working?

Commissioner Hardesty: First and foremost, it’s clear we need to do more and I am continuing to dive deep into a complex issue to find policy solutions that mitigate gun violence in both the short term and long term. I am currently looking at additional short-term ideas to complement our long-term strategies, such as a gun buyback program, strict requirements regarding gun storage, a community mediation program, and a new tip hotline. We can also free up police resources for their role in solving gun crimes with the full expansion of Portland Street Response, making 311 a 24/7 operation, and continuing to evaluate the day-to-day duties of PPB officers to ensure their time is being spent on Portlanders priorities, which certainly includes mitigating gun violence.

I strongly believe this Council made the right choice in making a historic investment in community-based organizations that specialize in violence prevention and upstream solutions to gun violence. I have analyzed the extensive research of public health experts like Dr. Jon Jay of Boston University, who I brought in for multi-jurisdiction work sessions earlier this year. I believe in this work. Recently I had a staff member tour gun violence hot spots with Dr. Jon Jay. He now has a contract with the Office of Community Safety to continue this research and provide policy guidance. I believe these investments will mitigate gun violence in the long term by focusing on the root causes and preventing guns from ever being shot in the first place. The reality is we should have been investing more in this work a long time ago to have helped prevent what we are seeing today. It’s hard to catch up in a crisis.

This is one part of the solution, but I also understand and share the frustration the community feels about the slow pace of getting these dollars out the door, getting this work started, and feeling like we have a handle on the crises we are facing. KATU reported yesterday that the majority of those grants just went out this month. I am committed to seeing these programs succeed and have attached a letter I sent to Mayor Wheeler about bringing further transparency, accountability, and measurable metrics to these grants as distributed by the Office of Violence Prevention.

As for filling the new Park Ranger positions, I know that staffing is an issue for all employers right now, including the City of Portland. There are a lot of people that have anxiety around sending their kids back to school, being out and interfacing with the community during the Delta variant surge, and many additional reasons people are reluctant to take public facing jobs right now. Park Rangers have been over-emphasized as a part of the City’s solution to gun violence in media coverage, as they are just a small part of our gun violence mitigation strategy. Park Rangers have excellent de-escalation skills, are trusted by community members, and they can provide eyes on the ground to alert police to potential criminal activity. This will prove to be helpful when these positions are filled.

As for the FIT Team, I have deep concerns about its effectiveness considering the low clearance rates and racially disproportionate outcome of previous police specialty units like the ineffective Gun Violence Reduction Team. The many audits on different variations of this program show nothing to be proud of. If you look at the clearance rates for the former GVRT compared to PPB’s general fund budget allocation, you will see there is no correlation between the two. 

Despite my skepticism this FIT team will be any different or more effective than other PPB specialty units, I also believe it’s ridiculous that PPB is waiting around trying to find volunteers for such a sensitive task. Chief Lovell needs to show leadership and assign his best officers that are most equipped to do this work to the FIT team. He has this ability.

In summary, we have a lot of work to do but I do believe we are headed in the right direction. I share the community’s frustration at the slow pace of change. We must acknowledge the increase in gun violence is not unique to Portland and that this unprecedent pandemic has exasperated the economic desperation and mental health challenges in our community. People lost their jobs, lost access to services they need, many people are facing housing insecurity and evictions, we have had extreme heat, wildfires, and so many compounding crises in the last 2 years. I know most people would do anything to feed their kids and people are in survival mode. Building out a robust social safety net will do more to mitigate crime than any police funding is capable of doing.

Oregonian: What urgent steps should the City Council take in order to address the extreme level of shootings and killings in Portland? What changes can help immediately stem some of the violence playing out in the city every day?

Commissioner Hardesty: I’m currently doing my research around several short-term steps the Council can take to address the rise in shootings. This could potentially include a regular gun buyback program, a community mediation program, a new tip hotline, and priority funding for violence interruption work. I will have more to say on this as we head into the Fall BMP.

To free up additional police resources, we can expand Portland Street Response and make 311 a 24/7 operation. We also need to build trust in our police department to get better information and increase our clearance rates.

It’s well documented how bad Oregon is at providing mental health care to those in need. We have nowhere to send people that are suffering. Through expanding Unity, adding a mental health drop-in center downtown, adding culturally competent resources, and dramatically increasing our federal, state, and county investment in our system of mental health, we have some relatively short term opportunities to create a healthier community, which will lead to less crime.

Oregonian: Does the city need more police officers?

Commissioner Hardesty: I don’t believe PPB has a staffing crisis; I believe they have a recruitment crisis. PPB currently has over 100 vacancies. During the last budget, Mayor Wheeler and I wrote an amendment to expedite the hiring of new officers, with a restriction that the money could only be used for that purpose. I was told the other day that we have not hired a single new police officer because of this budget amendment. What would adding millions of dollars to PPB to create more empty positions they haven’t proven they can fill do to promote public safety? It will simply take resources away from other vital City services and give PPB another slush fund for their excessive overtime.

We need to fill PPB to its current allotment of positions while fully understanding the impacts of a transforming community safety system before we can even have the conversation about adding more FTE positions to PPB. We know expanding Portland Street Response and many law changes, such as the decriminalization of small amounts of drug possession, will further free up police resources. We also know when we eliminated ineffective, racially disparate specialty units, it provided over 40 more officers for patrol. I also supported adding additional unarmed PS3s to PPB following an evaluation of what they do, because we need unarmed police in the community, not behind desks.

Police have an important role to play in solving crime, but we need to better understand how the average PPB officer spends their day and how the bureau is allocating its current resources. In relation to gun violence, metrics we need to be provided by PPB on a weekly basis include: How many guns were taken of the street, how many interactions related to gun violence did PPB have, what’s the demographic breakdown of those interactions, and how many cases are headed to the DA for prosecution. The DA recently published an excellent new dashboard and we should double down on that good work. If we got this info each week, we could evaluate PPB’s effectiveness in solving gun related crimes. I’ve asked Director Myers for an assessment about the daily activity of police and why it appears officers are responding to so few incidents per day. Only with good data can we ask follow up questions to determine if PPB’s current staffing levels are appropriate.

I’m committed to doing what I can to transform PPB’s culture, so they are an attractive employer for Portlanders that hold our progressive values. This Fall we will be creating an RFP to get moving on a Truth & Reconciliation process between the community and PPB. This will help us understand how Portlanders want to be policed and provide a roadmap for transformation.

PPB is currently unresponsive to the Department of Justice, unresponsive to the City Council, and unresponsive to the Police Commissioner. I can not in good conscious add people to a rouge bureau with a dysfunctional culture without seeing some serious changes.

Portlanders are constantly being told by police they can not assist them or do anything in situations where that does not make sense. We saw this when a PPB officer blamed “Obama” for being unable to peruse a criminal suspect, we see it reported in the media, and my office hears from constituents all the time that all they are getting from PPB is a shrug and excuse. We need to start hearing solutions and hearing what PPB officers actually do. We had every single officer on duty for the August 22nd Proud Boys rally and yet they still refused to intervene and prevent violence as it was occurring. This doesn’t add up and it’s unacceptable.

I also want to see a bigger vision from PPB than rehiring retired officers. This doesn’t move the bureau forward or bring new energy to the bureau, it just cements the current problematic culture.

Clearance rates don’t go up by adding police, they go up when community members respect and trust the police.

Oregonian: What, if anything, would the commissioner do to decrease the delay in response to 911 calls? (https://www.oregonlive.com/crime/2021/09/portland-callers-to-911-more-often-on-hold-for-over-5-minutes-as-calls-rise-staff-drops.html)

Commissioner Hardesty: I believe Director Bob Cozzie is the right person for this very difficult task. Before Bob took the job, BOEC had a history of bad management. When I oversaw BOEC, we met regularly to address call times and to boost BOEC staffing. There is a whole new training that was funded through the 2019 budget cycle on a timeline to prepare dispatchers to be ready when Portland Street Response is fully rolled out and that will help decrease the delay as more 911 calls can be directed away from the police. PSR expansion, making 311 24/7, looking at technology improvements, and exploring Nurse triage all can help decrease the delay. Under my leadership we stationed a PPB sergeant in the 911 call center to help divert calls or solve certain issues without an officer being dispatched. This is something we can build on. Being a 911 dispatcher is an intense job and it takes 2 years to fully train a new dispatcher. The newest trainings will involve dispatchers asking more questions which will lead to more effective dispatching. While I’m no longer in charge of BOEC and believe it was a mistake to distribute the public safety bureaus across so many different offices, I believe in Director Cozzie they have the leadership capacity to fix the issues they are currently facing.

Oregonian: Would the commissioner support changing parameters for the Portland Street Response to start sending the team on suicidal calls?

Commissioner Hardesty: Yes. It’s important to note there are many kinds of suicide calls and there are some that would not be appropriate for Portland Street Response to be the sole first responder to. However, I do believe there are types of suicide calls PSR is ready to respond to. We want PSR to take as many 911 calls as possible that don’t put staff in danger. We started with a consensus list and I know PSR staff is ready to take on a host of additional calls they don’t currently take. There is constant collaboration between PSR, PPB, Fire, and BOEC to determine who is the right responder to different call types. We need to negotiate these changes with the impacted unions and are currently in the process of doing so. As PSR grows, so will the kinds of calls they respond to.

Separately, I worked with Firefighters at Station 24 to implement a new training on how to respond to a suicide call because of the increase in specific requests not to send police. This new enhanced training will help Fire when necessary to have a more trauma informed response.

Oregonian: How confident is she in Chief Lovell’s leadership? Is he the right person to lead the police bureau?

Commissioner Hardesty: I will give Chief Lovell credit for staying in a very difficult position when other senior PPB leadership has left the City. I have been very critical of the Chief, but I’ve always praised and supported him when he makes good decisions. For example, I was a vocal supporter of his direction to have PPB officers focus on life safety traffic violations such as excessive speeding over things like expired tags. I’m also really pleased that the Chief is committed to a truth and reconciliation committee. He knows this process will be painful and require a lot of internal work, but he showed leadership in committing to this process. I hope we can build a collective vision for the bureau moving forward, but I need to hear more than “not enough resources” to the many problems facing PPB.

Like Chief Outlaw, I’m not convinced he has the wrap around support he needs to be successful. I recommended to the Mayor to reach out to retired African American police officers to provide him a network of support and I hope that happened. I want Chief Lovell to be successful, but I need to see stronger leadership.

In the long run I am unsure if Chief Lovell is the right person to lead PPB and transform it into a very different bureau than it is today. I was always troubled by the lack of process that was involved in hiring Chief Lovell. It’s clear we are in a state of mismanagement and I need to see a bureau of solutions, not excuses. I’m troubled by the lack of vision I see from PPB in aligning with a moment in history demanding transformation in policing and community safety.

Oregonian: Anything else the commissioner would add about the city’s response to gun violence?

Commissioner Hardesty: What is occurring in Portland right now is tragic. I send my deepest condolences to everyone that has been affected by gun violence in our community.

There are different ideas about how to move forward amongst my colleagues and it’s an incredibly important conversation to have. This conversation will lead to more action. I hear Portlanders pain, I hear their frustration. I’m looking at new and innovative ideas and want to avoid a knee jerk reaction that doesn’t address the root causes of gun violence.

Gun violence is a complex issue and I have been addressing it at the many tables I serve on. For example, through LPSCC we are creating a process to rethink our entire criminal justice system and I want to see more support for those leaving incarceration. There is a generational trauma from our system of mass incarceration that has destroyed many families and we need to set people that have served their time up for success in the future.

I constantly evaluate data and am always willing to change my mind. If I believed adding hundreds of new PPB officers was the answer, I would support it. This isn’t about ideology, it’s about data evaluation and best practices. From where I am sitting, my evaluation does not reach the conclusion that adding more empty positions to PPB will improve community safety. There is no simple solution to this complex problem but I’m committed to the continued work with my colleagues, community safety system, and Portlanders to decrease the unacceptable level of gun violence we are seeing.