City leaders have promised for months to expand Portland’s police force—while struggling to actually do it. Cops have retired or resigned from the force faster than Portland could hire them. As of last week, the Portland Police Bureau had the lowest number of sworn employees since 1989.
But that all changed Sept. 22. The city announced it had hired 20 new officers, “representing the first measurable staffing increase in years.”
With 791 cops, Portland now has 1.2 for every 1,000 people in the city. Using 2020 federal data, WW crunched the numbers to see how Portland now fares compared with other large U.S. cities.
Among the 50 largest cities in the United States, Portland ranks near the bottom in police per capita. It’s joined by a group of California municipalities. Portland tied with San Diego and Sacramento.
The national average is 2.4 officers per 1,000, according to the FBI, which tracks law enforcement staffing across the country. The median among the top 50 largest cities is 1.8.
WW reached out to the 10 cities at the bottom of the list for more granular detail to break a three-way tie for third-to-last place. Even with the infusion of recruits, Portland ranks 48th, ahead of only San Jose and Bakersfield.
Still, experts in police staffing say not to read too much into this number. “You could be 48th and still have enough,” says James McCabe, a two-decade veteran of the New York City Police Department who is now a professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut. He pointed to a steep reduction in size of New York’s police force in the early 2000s that coincided with a drop in crime.
“It’s not necessarily how many you have, it’s what you do with them,” he adds. Still, McCabe says, Portland likely needs more officers.
The bureau is experimenting with new ways of allocating officers’ time. It now employs 26 public safety support specialists, who are unarmed and respond to low-priority calls. The Central Precinct recently assigned PS3s, as they are known, to take over midday shifts and reallocated officers to a new patrol unit focused on weekend club activity in Old Town.
It has also tried to speed up recruiting. Earlier this year, it hired more background investigators and began offering $5,000 signing bonuses.
Last year, investigators sorted through 675 applicants, according to the bureau’s annual report. They hired 27. That 4% acceptance rate is lower than Harvard’s.
In 2019, Assistant Chief Chris Davis told the Portland City Council that drug use and dishonesty were the most common reasons for rejection.
Earlier that year, The Oregonian reported that the turnaround time for applications averaged 340 days, which caused the bureau to lose out on qualified applicants.
Now, police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Allen tells WW that the bureau tells applicants to “plan for about a six-month process.” And that delay is dropping thanks to the beefed-up investigation team.
Police Officers per 1,000 Population
Washington, D.C. 5.30
New York 4.10
Los Angeles 2.50
San Francisco 2.50
Las Vegas 2.40
Kansas City 2.10
Fort Worth 1.80
Oklahoma City 1.70
El Paso 1.70
Virginia Beach 1.70
Long Beach 1.70
San Antonio 1.63
Colorado Springs 1.45
San Diego 1.40
San Jose 1.15
Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation