Refund the police: Portland Mayor to rehire retired officers in effort to get shootings under control

The number of shootings in Portland continue to reach record levels, with the city already having passed 1,000 shootings this year. As I pointed out last week, the situation is so grim that the Portland Police Association is calling for doubling the number of officers from about 800 to over 1,600. A survey of residents found that 71% support hiring more police.

That message seems to have made its way to the ear of Mayor Ted Wheeler. Wheeler announced yesterday that he plans to quickly staff up a new Focused Intervention Team (FIT) by rehiring some retired officers:

Wheeler said he will make several proposals during the city’s upcoming budget adjustment process known as the “fall bump.”  Those proposals include reintroducing a gun violence intervention team to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), rehiring retired officers to address a police staffing shortage and equipping officers with body worn cameras to maintain accountability…

“There is no question in my mind that if we have the focused intervention team fully staffed [and deployed], which I expect to have happen next month, in addition to the enhanced community team that I directed the chief to deploy several months ago, that makes sure we have investigative follow up for gun violence, and if we add to that a longer term strategy around rebuilding the Portland Police Bureau so we can get back to community policing, which is what we should be doing in the first place … this will definitely have an impact on reducing gun violence,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler doesn’t seem very keen on describing how the city got into this mess in the first place but let me remind you. Portland used to have a team called the Gun Violence Reduction Team (GVRT) but they had long been under pressure because data showed they stopped far more black residents than white residents. After the death of George Floyd, the city disbanded the GVRT and cut the police budget. Violent crime in the city has been on the rise ever since.

Wheeler brought back some of the functions of the GVRT earlier this year but this new FIT will essentially bring back all of the rest. He is literally hoping to get back to where he started.

City leaders have pieced back together parts of what GVRT did. First, the bureau created the Enhanced Community Safety Team, a unit that responds to and investigates shootings but does not do any proactive patrols, as GVRT officers did.

Police Chief Chuck Lovell is in the process of creating a Focused Intervention Team, which will include 12 officers who will do those proactive patrols. However, unlike GVRT, there will be a community oversight group to track what the team does.

In short, after 18-months of BLM-inspired efforts to defund the police, Portland is going back to essentially the same teams and even the same people it had in place before. Wheeler says that effort is not incompatible with other reforms.

Well, duh!

A lot of us were saying last year that it was possible to have reforms such as special teams for responding to mental health issues without defunding the police. At the time, no one in Portland (or anywhere else) seemed to be listening. Now many months later, we’ve come back to where we started. There’s a pretty clear message in this story about the dangers of “reimagining community safety” without a clear plan. Here’s a bit of the interview with Mayor Wheeler:

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