For the second time in two months, Portland leaders have blocked a request to expand a groundbreaking program designed to reduce interactions between armed police officers and people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises.
The 5-month-old program, called Portland Street Response, offers an alternative to dispatching armed officers to certain types of mental health crisis calls. Instead, emergency dispatchers can send a two-member crisis team: one paramedic and one licensed mental health crisis therapist.
But the program has limits: Portland Street Response can only respond to calls within the Lents neighborhood, and it can only assist people who are either located outdoors or inside a “publicly accessible space,” such as a store, public lobby or business.
This spring, PSR and its elected champion, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, asked for $3.6 million in ongoing funds to expand the program citywide. Commissioner Carmen Rubio joined Hardesty, voting aye. The majority of the Portland City Council—Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Mingus Mapps and Dan Ryan—rejected the idea when it came up May 13.
Now WW has learned PSR tried again last month to widen its parameters. On June 23, PSR leadership submitted to the city a request to respond to calls located inside private residences, defined as “any non-publicly accessible space.”
PSR spokesperson Caryn Brooks tells WW that about a week later, on July 1, chief deputy city attorney Heidi Brown alerted program staff that a longtime critic of PSR had denied the request: the Portland Police Association, the union that represents officers of the Portland Police Bureau.
PSR needed the union’s approval because its teams would be taking calls typically handled by sworn police officers—and a deal reached last summer says the union retains bargaining rights over the program’s expansion. In other words, PPA can reject encroachments by PSR onto its turf.
The PPA’s denial means that, for now, Portland Street Response cannot be dispatched on calls to private residences like a house, hotel room or any other “non-publicly accessible space,” including many shelter settings.
Brooks remains optimistic: “The PPA recently rejected this request, but we believe we can come to a resolution that will allow us to pick more dispatches off of PPB’s large call volume, which is something PPB has asked for and is also one of the goals of PSR.”
At first glance, granting PSR’s request might look like a win-win, helping both a young program trying to gain traction and police officers who complain of being overworked.
PSR is striving to increase its call volume: In June, the team responded to 64 calls—down about 29% from 90 calls in May and on pace with the 63 calls it responded to in April.
And more calls for PSR could also provide relief for Portland police officers who have lamented since last summer that they are exhausted from staffing shortages, more than 100 nights of protests, and what the rank and file describe as a lack of support from City Hall, police brass and the Multnomah County district attorney.
Daryl Turner, executive director of the PPA, says the police union is aware of a desire among Portlanders for law enforcement and social services to work in tandem, but he cautioned against a “piecemeal” approach.
“Portlanders have sent a clear message that they want both robust policing and social services to work together to meet the community’s needs,” Turner tells WW. “The city must come up with a comprehensive plan to achieve this goal. A piecemeal approach like the city wants to take is counterproductive and will fail from its inception.”
It’s impossible to say what the City Council thinks of the idea: This week, the mayor and two city commissioners, including Hardesty, issued a blanket refusal to discuss any matter that might fall within ongoing police contract negotiations.
Mapps, whose office oversees the Bureau of Emergency Communications, which fields 911 and non-emergency calls, says the city is capable, from a technological standpoint, of fulfilling PSR’s request. “BOEC currently has the capability to dispatch Portland Street Response to indoor residences,” says spokesman Adam Lyons. “It would be a matter of adjusting protocols for dispatch and the city would need to keep an eye on any capacity issues that may arise.”
The bureau says it is also prepared: “BOEC is ready to make this happen, pending approval for this specific expansion of the pilot,” says spokesman Dan Douthit.
Phone operators at BOEC often determine whether to send armed police officers or Portland Street Response to calls emanating from Lents.
In order for PSR to be dispatched, a situation must meet one of four criteria: A person is outside and possibly intoxicated or experiencing a mental health crisis, a person is “outside and down” who hasn’t been checked on, a person is outside yelling, or a person 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 of five requirements: There are no weapons seen, the person is not suicidal, the person is not in or obstructing traffic, the person is not violent toward others (that is, “physically combative, threatening violence, assaulting,” according to BOEC) , and the person is not inside a private residence.
Portland Street Response argues, nearly six months into the pilot, that the program feels prepared to handle calls inside hotel rooms and homes, in addition to parks and other outdoor or public settings.
“We see a benefit to the community members to be able to respond to them in homes,” Brooks says. “We also understand the police have their perspective of what is potentially risky about entering a residence. We’re going to work with them to try to understand those things.”
PSR also wants to increase its call volume from its peak in May of 90 calls per month. “By opening up residences, that would increase our call volume to be able to assist more people and take calls away from police and fire that are low acuity,” Brooks says, adding that the expansion to private residences is “something we want to try to experiment with to see how that goes.”
BOEC and the PPA both deny that the union representation has created a conflict. PSR itself also says there is no evidence of foot-dragging; in fact, the program audited its calls in early July after the dip from 90 calls in May to 64 in June.
“We pulled the call details and audited them to make sure BOEC wasn’t missing opportunities to dispatch PSR,” Brooks says. “The audit verified that all calls were being dispatched to us based on the criteria currently set.”
But the turf battle between the police union and Portland Street Response remains somewhat mysterious, thanks in part to the thorny rules that surround collective bargaining between the Portland Police Association and the city.
Chief deputy city attorney Brown declined to disclose the manner in which discussions took place last month between her office and the PPA regarding a possible expansion of PSR, or whether the police union raised substantive concerns about safety or other labor issues that might arise should PSR respond to private residences.
Brown’s reason for no comment echoed that of city commissioners and the mayor: ongoing contract negotiations.
Mediation between the parties is slated for July 28, according to a spokeswoman from Oregon’s Employment Relations Board.