A Portland Program Intended to Reduce Police Interactions With People in Crisis Is Off to a Slow Start

911 dispatchers at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications aren’t sending the new team as many calls as it could handle.

CALL AND RESPONSE: Some residents in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Lents say they want more police response to homeless camps and occupied vehicles, not less. (Wesley Lapointe)

A groundbreaking program designed to siphon 911 calls away from police is off to a sluggish start in East Portland—in part because it isn't being sent many calls by emergency dispatchers.

The city launched Portland Street Response in February with a pilot program in the Lents neighborhood. Instead of dispatching armed police officers to handle non-emergency calls, like wellness checks or an unarmed person experiencing a mental health crisis, City Hall is sending a two-person crisis team: one paramedic and one licensed clinical social worker.

In Eugene, a similar program called CAHOOTS responds to about 20% of calls dispatched by 911. In Portland, the number is far less than 1%.

In fact, the crisis team now responds to about two calls a day.

An online data dashboard recently uploaded by Portland Street Response shows the crisis team responded to 11 calls in February, 42 in March and, to date, seven in April. That's 60 calls total over a span of about 40 business days. (The team is active five days a week.)

The low volume is in part an expected result of a program slowly scaling up in its first two months, and spending more time with people in distress than police officers would. But 911 dispatchers at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications aren't sending the new team as many calls as it could handle.

Tremaine Clayton, a Portland Fire & Rescue medic who makes up one half of Portland Street Response's two-person crisis team, says he had initially expected more work.

"It is a little confusing as to why our call volume is lower than expected," Clayton tells WW. "In a 10-hour day, I was hoping that we would be getting like five to eight calls a day. That was kind of what I was expecting based off of the average intervention."

Separately, in an April 9 email shared with WW, Portland Street Response program manager Robyn Burek noted that the program's calls take on average about 50 minutes. "So with an eight-hour shift," Burek wrote, "our capacity would be between six and 12 calls per shift."

The vast majority of Portland Street Response calls are made to and dispatched from the city's Bureau of Emergency Communications, or BOEC. In other words, BOEC is responsible for assigning calls to PSR.

But that creates a potential conflict: Many of BOEC's operators are members of the Portland Police Association, the union that also represents Portland police officers. They are being asked to divert work from their union brethren, to teams intended to reduce the city's reliance on police.

PPA executive director Daryl Turner confirms that BOEC dispatchers and call takers are members of his union, but says they are acting in good faith. "They have strict protocol that they have to follow in regards to Street Response and calls they're dispatched to, and it's monitored closely by BOEC management," Turner says. "So whatever the call load is for Portland Street Response, it is what it is."

Dan Douthit, a spokesman for BOEC, says there are "absolutely no conflicts" between the two agencies, and that they are working together to determine the appropriate boundaries and call types for dispatching Portland Street Response.

"It is important to note the pilot is barely two months in, and that PSR is creating a whole response system from scratch," Douthit says.

Portland Street Response faces intense pressure to prove its value. In a city bitterly divided over the role of police, the new program's $4.8 million budget was transferred from the $15 million slashed from the Portland Police Bureau's budget last June.

And one of PSR's stated goals is to reduce the load of calls the Police Bureau responds to—allowing police to focus on serious crimes.

At this rate, the program has hardly made a dent in reducing the bureau's call log. And the slow start risks fueling a backlash from the police union and its allies as they seek to restrict the program's expansion onto cops' traditional turf.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who championed Portland Street Response, says the city intentionally launched the pilot in a part of the city where the call volume would be lower to avoid "jumping in the deep end of the pool before we were ready."

"I am proud to see the Portland Street Response pilot is moving forward as intended—thoughtfully, intentionally, and learning from the data and reports on the ground to adjust as needed," Hardesty tells WW. "I've been adamant that we must be patient to learn from and adjust the pilot to ensure we can safely and effectively expand citywide next year… This is what system change looks like. I'm excited for the pilot program to keep learning and growing as intended."

Pressures faced by Portland Street Response were on display last week when its leadership visited residents of the neighborhood it serves.

"Right now, we're kind of starting small," Burek, the program manager, told an April 8 meeting of the Lents Neighborhood Livability Association, an anti-crime group.

One neighbor asked how many calls the group responds to.

"It's about two a day," Burek responded.

"And the other seven hours a day you are…?" asked Penny Wilson, the Lents group's vice president, trailing off her question as if to suggest the team doesn't do a whole lot all day.

"We're waiting," Burek responded. She then paused for a moment and clarified her answer: It's a bit more complicated than that.

If a Portlander calls 911, the situation must meet one of four criteria in order for it to be dispatched to Portland Street Response: a person who is outside and possibly intoxicated or experiencing a mental health crisis, a person who it "outside and down" who hasn't been checked on, a person who is outside yelling, or a person who needs referral services but doesn't have access to a phone.

If a call meets one of those criteria, it must then check off all the following three requirements: There is no access to a weapon, the person is not suicidal, and the person is not violent toward others (that is, "physically combative, threatening violence, assaulting," according to BOEC).

Clayton says the program is working with BOEC to determine whether its triage criteria—that is, the set of questions a 911 operator asks a caller to determine which type of responder to send on a call—is too narrow.

"We have a pretty defined criteria, and it just might be too tight," Clayton says.

To some extent, the low call volume is intentional. Portland Street Response is intended to prioritize quality over quantity, its champions say, and to establish trust with community members who have historically felt threatened by armed police officers.

"Our calls take a long time, and that's on purpose," says program spokesperson Caryn Brooks. "Police and fire are very, very busy. They go in, they do their call, and then they move on to the next call because they're so in demand. Our response is a slower response on purpose."

But that's not what some Lents residents want.

WW attended the April 8 meeting and watched as some group members scoffed at the speed and scale of the program. Neighbors said what they wanted instead was a hotline they could call to protect them against what they described as a dangerous homeless population.

And if they didn't get it?

"We're victims now and, at some point in time, we're gonna be criminals," said a woman in the group, who did not give her name. "And we're going to be the ones that go to jail for protecting our families." Another man chimed in, hinting darkly that residents might use assault rifles to clear homeless camps.

At the meeting, Clayton tried to explain what he can and can't do. He said he's responded to several calls about people who were simply sleeping in a vehicle or in a public space during the daytime.

"Just the other day, we went to the park," Clayton recounted. "It was a beautiful, sunny day. I would love nothing more than to just kick back and relax in the park and, more or less, that's what this person was doing."

Clayton said the caller had requested that Portland Street Response check on the person and, if the individual was OK, to have them moved out of the park.

"That's not something that we're probably going to do, especially in an open public space during daylight, normal operating hours," Clayton said. "There was no crime in progress. There was no medical need and the person was literally just sleeping in the park."

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.