Move Police Officers Off 911 Response to Investigate Car Thefts

The idea that we’re asking police officers to do the wrong job is not new.

Problem: Nobody is dedicated to solving car thefts.

Idea: Move police officers off 911 response to conduct investigations.

As the size of the Portland police force has dwindled in recent years, it’s had to make cuts. Auto theft unit? Gone in 2006. Traffic division? Eliminated in 2020. Drug stings on hot corners? No one to do them.

In 2005, the city auditor slammed the Portland Police Bureau for funding far fewer detectives (89) per capita than comparable cities. The bureau now has only 85.

The city now has twice the number of car thefts as many comparable cities, WW reported last month. Each year, more and more people die crossing the street, in part because no one’s enforcing speed limits. Shards from shattered car windows litter the streets as the bureau’s property crimes clearance rates drop.

The bureau says it’s understaffed—”most shifts we are under minimum staffing to just take patrol calls,” Chief Chuck Lovell said earlier this year.

Hiring might dig the bureau out of its problem, but that will take years. Training a new recruit takes 18 months alone. We don’t have time to wait. So here’s a solution: give up on sending armed officers to every 911 disturbance call and use the freed-up officers to re-form the city’s specialty crime units—solving crimes, patrolling beats, and deterring criminals, rather than running around responding to calls.

The idea that we’re asking police officers to do the wrong job is not new. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in 2016. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve.”

“We’re sending police to thousands of calls a year in communities across America that the government said: Call them, we don’t have anything else,” Ronal Serpas, a former chief of the Washington State Patrol who is now a professor at Loyola University, tells WW.

“The use of a professional-class employee to do the things that police are being assigned by their city that do not require a gun and badge makes perfect sense,” he adds.

A huge number of 911 calls do not require a police response. An analysis by a police oversight committee found that of nearly 400,000 calls for service in Portland in 2019, only 16% resulted in a report of a crime. Nearly half of calls this year were for “disturbances,” not crimes.

Portlanders seem to agree. In 2021, the city’s new citizen oversight committee reported that an “overwhelming majority” of people surveyed “indicated a desire to expand nonpolice first responders.”

The city has the tools at its disposal. Portland already sends mental health counselors and unarmed Police Bureau employees to some 911 calls. The Central Precinct is already using unarmed responders to take some midday low-priority calls and has reassigned officers to patrol high-crime areas of downtown.

But these programs are still in their infancy: Portland Street Response responds to only 3% of total calls. The bureau has only recently begun aggressively hiring unarmed responders. And the ones it has hired are limited in the types of calls they can take.

City leaders will need to do more than shuffle shifts. They need to convince Portlanders that an armed police response isn’t always needed when they call 911. “People’s expectations are not going to be met,” Ronal says. It’s up to city leaders—the mayor and City Council—to change those expectations, he says.

See all 13 Big Ideas to Save Portland here.

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