Wheeler calls for hiring more cops
Mayor Ted Wheeler called Thursday for a major increase in the number of city police officers, saying a staff shortage is leading to burnout and excessive use of overtime pay, making it hard for the police force to enact his vision for community policing.
"What we are doing today is the opposite of community policing," Wheeler told a packed hall at Portland Community College's Southeast campus, his alternative locale to deliver the annual State of the City speech.
While calls to 9-1-1 are on the upswing, especially for stolen cars, the understaffed police force isn't able to respond as quickly as it needs to, Wheeler said. In one case, "It took an hour and two minutes to respond to a carjacking, because they were spread too thin."
Wheeler said every police officer will get "implicit bias training," starting in May, to help officers respond to citizens with more understanding of cultural differences and their own preconceptions.
His proposed budget for 2018-19, to be unveiled in coming weeks, will include hiring a new analyst to "move the Police Bureau forward" in analyzing its work, Wheeler said, particularly "stop data" that documents the race and other attributes of people stopped by police.
He stressed that Portland's racist history has led to a lack of trust in police, especially among African-Americans. He lauded his new police chief, Danielle Outlaw, an African-American from Oakland, sitting in the front row, as a sign of the changes he hopes to bring to the bureau. Getting to a true community policing model, he said, "will reduce crime, and it will rebuild trust."
Wheeler vowed to continue promoting Portland as a "sanctuary city" that welcomes immigrants, and brushed off threats from the Donald Trump administration to punish cities that have taken that stand.
"For me, that means even if I have to go to jail," Wheeler said.
He promised to sustain record city funding next year for a joint city-county homelessness office, and ticked off figures showing the city's reduction in homeless people without shelter in the latest official count.
The city is getting a record 700 new affordable housing units this year, Wheeler said, and many more are in the pipeline. "In 2019, there will be over 1,300 units beginning construction and opening their doors."
He urged the audience to support a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would enable the city to leverage remaining money from a voter-approved affordable housing bond. The amendment would allow the city to use funds along with private-sector and other partners. "It could double or even triple the number of units we could do with the same amount of dollars," he said.
Typically, State of the City speeches are used to herald new initiatives, but there was little of that in Wheeler's hour-long speech.
He spoke of a pilot program within the Bureau of Development Services aiming to speed approval of significant building projects. Portland has a reputation for taking an inordinate amount of time to approve projects, which can partly be traced to its form of government, whereby each bureau operates as an independent "silo" overseen by one city commissioner.
Wheeler also announced a new Connect 2 Careers program aimed at helping link young workers to employers.
Wheeler highlighted the failure so far of the city's four-year, $20 million effort to lure back people who were displaced from inner North and Northeast Portland to live there. A recent report showed that, despite a variety of subsidy programs, the effort has failed to catch on, resulting in relatively few takers.
Yet Wheeler, on that issue or others, did not use the opportunity to say what he's going to do about that problem.
He promised that the "first dollars" in his new budget will go to address the housing crisis, though there were no specifics on what that really means.
The Residential Infill Project, perhaps the city's biggest initiative to address gentrification by boosting density in closer-in neighborhoods, didn't get mentioned. Nor did Wheeler mention the never-used Wapato jail, which some hope could be used for a massive homeless service center modeled after one in San Antonio.
Wheeler did stress some of what he views as his administration's achievements in the past 15 months, and said residents sometimes dwell on what's wrong with the city without acknowledging things it's doing right.
"We're Portlanders. We're hard on ourselves," he said.
Some had predicted Wheeler would be greeted by protesters by choosing such a public location for his speech. Only one protester showed up, carrying a sign against police violence, and he was escorted out of the hall, before returning later.
"I thought he hit on all the major issues facing the city," said Sandy McDonough, chief executive of the Portland Business Alliance, after watching the speech. She praised the mayor's address, because it laid out the mayor's priorities.
African-American activist Cameron Whitten was more disappointed. "The city of Portland is, at the moment, in a period of political and spiritual crisis," Whitten said. 'I didn't hear what I need from my mayor to impact the crisis in the city."
Customarily, mayors deliver State of the City speeches at Portland City Club meetings at a spiffy downtown hotel. Wheeler plans instead to take questions about the speech Friday at the City Club's regular Friday Forum.