Brian Harvey liked being the eyes and ears of his apartment block.
Each month, Harvey attended a city-sponsored meeting with his fellow tenants of the Yards at Union Station, an affordable housing complex on the northwest bank of the Willamette River.
The group, called Apartment Watch, brainstormed ways to stave off burglaries and trespassing. They put keypads on the laundry room, installed fences, and even covered electrical outlets so passersby didn't linger to plug in their cellphones.
Harvey used to regularly communicate with the Portland City Hall office that supervises and funds Apartment Watch. He says he hasn't heard from the city since July.
Harvey feels cast adrift, at a time when Portland's streets can feel increasingly lawless. City statistics show violent crime in Harvey's Old Town neighborhood, for instance, has risen significantly over the past five years.
"I would be curious about if we're even officially a group anymore," says Harvey. "There's been no word on what our status is."
WW has learned one possible reason: City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is quietly changing neighborhood watches.
The Portland Office of Community and Civic Life, which Eudaly oversees, tells WW that, as of July 1, "we are no longer involved in the traditional neighborhood watch model." It will instead direct funds to other community events—including first aid trainings, walking kids safely to school, and potlucks.
That shift comes as Eudaly is locked in a high-profile fight with neighborhood associations over the future of the Office of Community and Civic Life, which handles civic engagement. But her move away from neighborhood watches has received far less attention.
The change follows years of attrition. In 2014, City Hall supported 597 neighborhood watches and related groups. In 2018, that number had dwindled to 367.
This summer, officials rebranded the program that coordinates neighborhood watches—changing its name from the "Crime Prevention Program" to "Community Safety"—and rewrote its goals to de-emphasize policing.
Proponents say the changes will remove the busybody stigma of neighborhood watches and encourage a more diverse array of people to invest in their streets.
"Safe communities don't come from just 'preventing crime,'" says Jenny Glass, who runs the Rosewood Initiative, a nonprofit that connects Southeast Portland residents to city resources, "but doing the hard work to build community, especially across differences in race, culture and socio-economic status."
But critics—including two former leaders of the program—say Eudaly's reforms amount to nothing more than intentional neglect of a service that has become unfashionable. They describe chaos in the department, and say the overhaul amounts to little more than a set of buzzwords.
"It's hard to tell the difference between rebranding and elimination sometimes," says Mingus Mapps. He oversaw the neighborhood watch program before he was fired in June. He's now running against Eudaly for City Council. "This is basically slowly starving the program through bad decisions, mismanagement and not filling vacancies."
The battle comes at a time when a recent, comprehensive survey of city residents found Portlanders are increasingly worried about crime—and "do not feel they have the power to influence city decisions that affect them." In other words, they feel abandoned by and alienated from their government.
Community Safety takes up a small sliver of Portland's budget—$1.6 million a year, a figure that remains steady—but this fight reflects the larger tensions at play as Eudaly confronts neighborhood associations. These grassroots organizations have long had power over the look and feel of their own streets. Now they feel cut off by a commissioner who would rather hear from other voices.
Eudaly tells WW that she's not starving the Community Safety program—she's improving it. "Reducing harm requires that we get to the root causes of the challenges we are facing as a city," she says in a statement. "No single bureau can accomplish that, but we can make significant strides working together."
Most Portlanders probably didn't know neighborhood watches were funded and supervised by City Hall. But that's been the case since the late 1970s, under the Crime Prevention Program.
That program trained residents to police their own streets. Police officers and city bureaucrats would lead foot patrols, for example—taking groups of neighbors on tours of city streets and parks, teaching them how to spot and report petty crimes like illegal camping and bike theft.
Last year, the Office of Community and Civic Life eliminated foot patrols, according to a statement provided by the bureau.
Mapps objected. He says neighborhood associations will still form similar patrols—but now without regulations or supervision from the city.
"If [patrols are] organized by the city, we're going to train them and make them sign a piece of paper that says, 'When you go on foot patrols, don't bring your guns, don't bring your dogs, and be sober,'" says Mapps. "The thing that happens when you cut loose [patrols], is that they're still going to do the same activity, but they have no restrictions at all."
Foot patrols were just one of the things the Crime Prevention Program did. City officials still teach neighbors how to install lights and signs to deter break-ins. They also train watch groups when and how to report crimes.
Nearly 600 groups—including neighborhood watches, apartment watches, park watches and business watches—were sent regular emails and received visits from city officials. Now, all those programs have been wiped of their names and bundled under one title: Neighbors Together.
The city's description of the new programs makes this much clear: They will reduce policing. "Neighbors Together is a tool for communities to build resiliency by supporting neighbors and groups to organize and be better prepared to address a wide range of safety issues," the Office of Civic and Community Life said in a statement promoting the new program to neighborhoods. "If your community wants to advocate, build awareness, and/or organize around safe routes to school, natural disaster or emergency preparedness, youth empowerment, walking group, street art and improvements, potluck in the park, and more of the like, Neighbors Together is for you!"
The bureau tells WW the program rebranding occurred because of grassroots demand. "Many communities have asked for city responses to their community concerns that go beyond policing," says a spokeswoman for the bureau, Perla Sitcov. The bureau describes some neighborhood watches as "the outdated model of surveillance and racial profiling."
It's clear why some citizens would sour on neighborhood watches—the groups have come to symbolize fearful overreactions by homeowners to strangers. But they are beloved by many of the same people who hate Eudaly's ideas for larger reforms of neighborhood associations.
Neighborhood groups say they've been in the dark about impending changes to the program.
"We've basically had no communication from Crime Prevention since last December," says Chelsea Powers, president of the Brentwood-Darlington Neighborhood Association in inner Southeast Portland. "We don't even send people to [city offices] anymore because we don't even think they'll get help."
Mapps says that's because nobody inside the Office of Community and Civic Life knew what was happening, either. "We provided fewer and fewer services as we were trying to figure out what the hell we were actually doing," he adds.
Services dwindled as staff received muddled instructions from bureau leadership, Mapps says: "Almost day to day, it was very common to just randomly get an edict that says, 'We are no longer offering this service because….' Sometimes, there wasn't even an end to that sentence."
Bureau leadership maintains that the program is stronger than ever in building community and has increased its partnerships with other bureaus.
"This has been a win-win situation as public safety leaders are also working better together and collaboratively in recent years," Sitcov says.
Apartment Watch member Harvey worries. He doesn't know what the city plans to do.
"Being under the city gave us authority and legitimacy," says Harvey. "We don't know how or why that change is happening."