Portland residents Wednesday described a city racked by rising disorder and a deepening homelessness crisis as they weighed in before the Portland City Council on a spending plan aimed to bolster policing and public safety, assist those living on the streets and clean up garbage and debris generated at encampments.
More than 100 people testified during the seven-hour virtual hearing with dozens offering accounts teeming with frustration, fear and heartbreak and many urging elected leaders to approve the proposed $44 million measure scheduled for a vote next week.
Jessica Shellhorn fought back tears as she told the City Council how she had to help her 9-year-old stepson navigate a gantlet of needles, broken glass and human waste near their home off SE 162nd Avenue and Division Street.
Frequent gunshots, fires and thefts have left many reeling in her Centennial neighborhood, she said.
“My family is at the point where we only feel safe in our house,” said Shellhorn, who added she is five months pregnant. “The urgency that’s needed to address the situation, I barely have words at this point.”
Frank Blackston, a disabled resident who said Portland needed more police officers, was blunt in his assessment of how city leaders have handled public safety. “The city feels lawless and we feel abandoned by our elected officials,” he said.
A number of other speakers, however, objected to any attempt that would beef up the Portland Police Bureau, criticized the city’s policy of clearing homeless encampments and called for investing more money toward community groups and social services. Some argued there was little evidence that increased police staffing would reduce crime.
“The way to get to a safer Portland for all of us is to make sure everyone has what they need to survive and thrive,” said Marc Poris. “Please use the money you currently have earmarked for police to build up systems of support instead.”
After hours of impassioned pleas, Mayor Ted Wheeler and the city’s four commissioners made few substantive changes to the proposal that they and City Hall staffers had spend weeks
crafting behind closed doors.
Wheeler unveiled a version of the fall financial package last week, less than a month after the city learned it can expect a windfall of $62 million, primarily from Portland’s business tax on large companies.
The funding push comes as the council continues to struggle with some of the city’s most pervasive and contentious issues.
Portlanders have consistently cited public safety, homelessness and the city’s ongoing trash problem as top priorities in recent public opinion polling.
Calls from some elected leaders and residents to increase the size of the Portland Police Bureau — which currently has fewer officers than any time in the last 30 years — have intensified amid record levels of shootings and homicides.
“These unexpected funds provide us with a crucial opportunity to help address our most urgent needs,” Wheeler said.
The mayor’s plan seeks about $7 million to hire back 25 retired police officers, buy body-worn cameras and boost recruitment to attract 200 more sworn officers and 100 unarmed public safety specialists in the next three years.
An additional $19 million would go toward a joint city of Portland and Multnomah County plan to create hundreds of additional shelter beds, increase the number of outreach and behavioral health teams that help those living on the streets and double the size of a city program tasked with removing refuse from unsanctioned camps and often sweeping its inhabitants.
Meanwhile, the remaining funds would go toward dozens of additional city projects and programs, including money to expand Portland Street Response, improve transportation and parks infrastructure and spur economic development.
Many of those who spoke in favor of rebuilding the ranks of Portland’s police force insisted that reforms to the bureau and a focus on a broader range of community issues must accompany that effort.
Shawn Michael, a Black Portlander, said that in addition to reinvesting in police the city had to confront a growing demand for mental health care, address systemic racism and provide an opportunity for reconciliation to those previously harmed by Portland cops.
“We cannot afford continued division that has contributed to this crisis,” Michael said. “Too many people are dying who look like me and my family.”
Following testimony, the Portland City Council moved to adopt a handful of minor amendments to the proposed package, which earmarks funds ranging from $20,000 to $6.5 million on more than 50 separate spending items.
One notable amendment, introduced by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and unanimously approved, would prevent the city from rehiring any Portland police officer who left the bureau while under investigation or facing disciplinary action.
Hardesty’s amendment would also bar any officer from the proposed retire-rehire program who had a use of force violation in their personnel file or who had been found to have violated city policy or engaged in unconstitutional practices in connection with protests or demonstrations.
Throughout Wednesday’s meeting, Hardesty was the sole member of the council to express concern that not enough time or deliberation had been given to a spending proposal of such size.
“If we pass this package as it currently stands, we are locking ourselves into commitments that as a full council we have had no dialogue or conversation on,” she said.
The City Council plans to vote on a final proposal Nov. 17.