As budget cuts loom for the department, the Portland Police Bureau is pitching a new "hot spot policing" technique, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon is worried that it may increase racial tensions between minorities and the cops.
The new method was pitched to the Portland City Council this week. Hot spot policing uses data to show exactly where crime occurs, and then officers are dispatched at random for 15 minute intervals to those locations.
The method, used in Sacramento and Milwaukee, Wisc., has a proven track record of cutting crime, says Cody Telep, an expert on hot spot policing who was flown in from George Mason University in Washington D.C. to speak with the city council. In most cities, including Portland, the majority of crime happens in specific areas, he explained.
In Portland, a preliminary analysis shows that 40 percent of crime in the city happens in just 3.5 percent of the areas, Chief Mike Reese told the city council. In Sacramento, crime went down by 25 percent once they started hot spot policing, he added.
But ACLU of Oregon Executive Director Dave Fidanque says the cops need to be careful about how they perform once they're in hot spot areas.
"Those areas, I suspect, tend to be areas with higher concentrations of people of color," Fidanque tells WW. "Depending on how police handle themselves, this can increase benign community policing, where police become part of the fabric of the neighborhood, or you can have an authoritarian presence that is stopping and searching people who have done nothing wrong in high proportions and alienating the community."
Hot spot policing has drawn fire in New York City, where police also use controversial "stop and frisk" methods to prevent crime. It's been effective, but has drawn the ire of minorities and civil liberties groups who decry the racial profiling involved.
Portland's leaders are careful to say that stop and frisk is not part of the PPB's plans.
"It's going to be up to the political leadership to say we are not targeting people, we are targeting the places," says City Commissioner Steve Novick, who is championing the change. "Research shows hot spot policing is effective even if they're simply there on the block. It doesn't mean they have to stop and frisk people."
Fidanque says that people who live in hot spot areas may get the benefit of decreased crime, but they too will be more likely to get stopped for low level enforcement activities such as traffic infractions.
"We just urge the bureau to be thinking about collateral consequences," Fidanque says.
PPB spokesman, Sgt. Pete Simpson says, there may be increased police contact with minorities in hot spots, but it would be "a side effect of the method." He says ultimately, residents' own concerns about high crime in tough areas is why the department is moving to hot spot policing.
"We don't support racial profiling at any level," Simpson says, adding, "and if there were any problems (due to hot spot policing), it would come to the surface."