Should Portland Police Merge With the County Sheriff?

We asked candidates in the first contested sheriff’s race in over a decade.

Public safety is one of the top concerns of Portlanders heading into the May primaries, according to pollsters. That ratchets up the intensity of what happens to be the first contested race for Multnomah County sheriff in more than a decade.

Unlike the Portland police chief, the Multnomah County sheriff is an elected position. And two agency insiders are vying to replace outgoing Sheriff Mike Reese: Undersheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell and Capt. Derrick Peterson of the corrections division, which manages the county’s jails.

Both candidates have turned decades of experience in the sheriff’s office into a wide range of endorsements, making a contested race even more competitive. (A third candidate, corrections deputy and former private security guard Nicholas Alberts, did not respond to WW’s inquiry. Alberts has not reported any fundraising to the state.)

The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office covers a much larger jurisdiction than the Portland Police Bureau, with a 280-square-mile patrol area (encompassing unincorporated portions of the county, Fairview, Troutdale and Gresham) and about 110 miles of waterways stretching from Sauvie Island and Scappoose to the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River Gorge.

While its budget is separate from PPB’s, the two agencies have some overlap. (MCSO, for example, assisted PPB during 2020 protests, and it has also rented space in the Police Bureau’s training facility.) As protests continued into the fall of 2020, City Hall quietly discussed the possibility of consolidation after County Commissioner Sharon Meieran revived the idea.

Now, as the Police Bureau struggles to manage decreased staffing levels and increasing gun violence, we were curious to know how the candidates viewed the relationship between city and county law enforcement.

WW asked: In recent years, city and county officials have floated the idea of merging the Portland Police Bureau and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. In 200 words or less, would you support such a merger and, if so, what would that agency look like?

Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell:

Collaboration is critical in public safety. The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office regularly partners with Portland police, offering assistance during emergency situations, coordinating on investigations, and addressing regionwide concerns like gun violence. MCSO’s responsibilities intersect with Portland and cover the entire county through our work providing public safety services on TriMet, operating two jail facilities, patrolling 110 miles of waterway, serving civil process court orders, and providing courthouse security.

In addition, MCSO has vast responsibilities beyond Portland. MCSO provides policing services in unincorporated Multnomah County and the contract cities of Fairview, Maywood Park, Troutdale and Wood Village, and we have built long-standing positive relationships.

Proponents of a merger make some compelling arguments, including the idea that it would create direct accountability to the community through an elected sheriff. However, I’m not convinced that diverting MCSO’s already limited resources to a very complex merger process is the best approach. The consolidation of Troutdale police with MCSO, a much smaller undertaking, took nearly four years. That said, as sheriff, I would keep an open mind and listen to community and elected leaders’ innovative ideas aimed at improving public safety and community trust.

Derrick Peterson:

Yes. With years of city and county law enforcement budget cuts, we are seeing a deterioration in public safety services. As we look to reform policing, and given the multitude of public safety crises in the county, to include major issues with hiring and retention in all agencies, leaders are at a crossroads where we must move beyond conversation and conjecture around the idea of consolidation of these two agencies.

Engaging the public on how they would like to be policed must be a major part of the equation when addressing the potential merger and should be incorporated into the merger plan. We do not have to start from scratch as the sheriff’s office has examples of successful mergers on a smaller scale with Troutdale and Fairview. I would support, at the very least, a partial/hybrid merger with a pathway to a full merger if we increased public safety, reduced cost, and gained efficiencies of Portland police while blending the people-focused approach of the sheriff’s office.

This initial partial merger would use a unified command approach that would initially be subject to specific special units performing similar work. If this approach finds efficiencies, steps should be taken for a full merger.