Portland City Council Votes to Cut $15 Million From Police Budget

The cuts will defund a controversial gang policing unit and end the city’s policing partnership with TriMet, the regional transit agency.

Portland City Council Votes to Cut $15 Million From Police Budget

The cuts will defund a controversial gang policing unit and end the city’s policing partnership with TriMet, the regional transit agency.

On Wednesday, the City Council in Portland, Oregon, voted to adopt a budget that will cut about $15 million in funding for several significant Portland Police Bureau programs. The measures, which the council’s four members agreed to in principle last week, will reduce the agency’s projected $244.6 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year by about 6 percent. 

“For too long, we have assumed that community safety meant armed individuals patrolling our streets. What we know is that that has not kept us safe,”  Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said during last week’s council meeting. The cuts, she said, would “start the process of reimagining what community safety looks like.” 

The amendments will defund the city’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, a unit originally formed to target gang violence; shut down the school resource officers program; and end PPB’s support of TriMet, the regional transit agency whose police force is comprised of officers from 14 area law enforcement agencies. The measures will also eliminate funding for eight positions on the Special Emergency Response Team—the city’s equivalent of SWAT—and reroute some $2.3 million in marijuana tax revenue that had been designated for the PPB.  

When combined with mandatory cuts meant to offset the revenue the city expects to lose from COVID-19, the PPB’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year will be $27 million less than projected.

Almost $5 million from the defunded programs will go toward the Portland Street Response, a non-police pilot agency that responds to calls related to people experiencing homelessness or having mental health crises. The council also reallocated $1 million in savings for a leadership development program for Black youth; set aside an additional $1 million for services for people experiencing homelessness; and earmarked $453,000 for the Office of Community & Civic Life to distribute through social equity grants.

Hardesty, a proponent of police reform well before her election to the council in 2018, credited protesters for compelling their elected officials to revamp the city’s priorities. “I’ve been working on this for 30 years, and I didn’t get anywhere near as far as I’ve gotten in the last two weeks,” she told The Appeal.

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The Gun Violence Reduction Team was formed as the Gang Enforcement Team before officials relaunched the unit last year, with a purported focus on all gun violence in the city. But like many gang units, the PPB has a lengthy history of discriminatory enforcement. A 2016 analysis of the PPB’s gang database by The Oregonian found that 81 percent of those in it were people of color, and in 2017, 55.6 percent of people stopped by GET officers were Black in a city that is only about 6 percent Black. In a report published in March 2018, the city auditor criticized the GET for its shoddy data collection, concluding that the unit “cannot analyze or explain the overrepresentation of African Americans in its stops.” 

The Gun Violence Reduction Team has also not proven especially effective at reducing gun violence: In May, The Oregonian reported that Portland police had responded to 167 shootings in 2020, compared to 128 shootings at this point last year—a 30 percent increase. 

“When we have the government’s agents using violence to solve their problem, I think that’s what translates into people in the streets thinking that’s the way to solve their problems, too,” said Dan Handelman, a founding member of Portland Copwatch.

TriMet police have also been criticized by residents, activists, and even elected officials for practices that disproportionately harm lower-income Portlanders and people of color. Until recently, fare evasion on TriMet transit could result in criminal charges and fines starting at $175. 

“It really just throws you into this cycle, all because you didn’t have $2.50 and wanted to get around the city,” said Gregory McKelvey, a Portland activist.

In 2018, a court ruled that TriMet employees had illegally stopped a well-known activist, David Douglas School District board member Ana del Rocío, for alleged fare evasion without reasonably suspecting her of any wrongdoing. In response, a coalition of Democratic lawmakers called on the agency to stop criminalizing its riders. “A policy of sweeping fare enforcement …  exacerbates disparities in the criminal justice system and contributes to the over-policing and over-prosecution of people of color, people with disabilities, and people experiencing homelessness and other forms of economic insecurity,” they wrote.

As detailed by the Portland Mercury, Hardesty had voiced her opposition to funding these programs during budget negotiations earlier this year, but at the time lacked sufficient support on the council to pass them. Recent high-profile protests of police brutality in Portland, however—and retaliatory incidents of police brutality against the protesters—caused the political climate to shift quickly. In a Facebook post published on June 5, Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who supported Hardesty’s earlier reform efforts, said her office had received over 10,000 emails in support of disbanding the PPB’s specialty units; last week, she said the count had eclipsed 65,000.

The approval process hit an unexpected snag last week when Eudaly withheld her support from formally passing the budget, noting that many residents had sought more drastic PPB budget cuts than those on which the council had agreed. The Portland African American Leadership Forum and Unite Oregon, for example, demanded an immediate cut of $50 million as a “starting point” for the debate over the future of policing.

“While I do support the amendments we made today, these are largely efforts community advocates have been demanding for years,” Eudaly said. “They are low-hanging fruit, and I don’t believe they go far enough.” For the same reason, Eudaly also voted no on approving the final budget—the only commissioner to do so.

Some activists echoed this sentiment. “This is an incremental change in a moment when we need a transformational shift in how we think about policing,” said Elliott Young, alternate co-chair of the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing, in an email to The Appeal. 

“Given everything that’s been happening, especially with the news coming out of Minneapolis, we think the city could definitely go further,” said Kaitlyn Dey, an organizer with Care Not Cops, which has called for regular, annual budget reductions of $50 million that would eliminate the budget altogether after five years. She says the group will continue to push for defunding PPB specialty units that were excluded from this round of cuts.

In a phone interview with The Appeal, Hardesty said that $50 million made for a “great soundbyte” but wasn’t backed by analysis, and accused Eudaly of holding up the vote to try to appear more progressive in an election year. “For a colleague to grandstand and pretend somehow she was trying to do something that I’ve been working on for 30 years? It just was appalling,” Hardesty said. Hardesty added that she will withdraw her support of Eudaly, whom she backed in the primary, in the general election this fall. Eudaly did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

The results of Wednesday’s vote comes at a moment when cities across the country are taking a hard look at shrinking, defunding, or abolishing their police departments altogether. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has indicated his support for diverting a to-be-determined amount of the NYPD’s proposed budget to social services. In Los Angeles, under intense pressure from activists, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced his support for repurposing up to $150 million in police funds for youth jobs programs and health initiatives, among others. Earlier this month, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intent to disband the city’s police department altogether.

Hardesty told The Appeal that slashing the PPB’s budget is just the first step in what she hopes will be a sustained period of reform. Over the next several months, the city will be conducting a review of the PPB’s remaining specialty units in order to gauge their efficacy and consider their future. “If we’re going to change the entire system, we have to change the system,” she said. “The budget is just one tiny piece of it.”

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