Portland’s Mayor Decided to Replace Police on Horseback With Unarmed Cops. Where Are They?

The police union says the new officers will spend little time in the streets.

Zeus, a Mounted Patrol horse shown here in 2013, now lives at the Lake Oswego Hunt Club. (Anna Jaye Goellner)

Almost two years ago, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler made a difficult and unpopular decision. He eliminated a division of the Portland Police Bureau that was a perennial favorite among cops and citizens: the Mounted Patrol Unit.

He pledged to replace it with something that could be more valuable: officers who would work primarily on improving Portland police's relationship with residents living on the margins of the city.

But 17 months later, those replacements haven't arrived. Multiple sources tell WW that the mayor's office didn't begin negotiating with the police union for these jobs for over a year. Even now, the mayor and the union are quarreling over what the jobs will entail: The union says the new officers will spend little time in the streets.

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she only voted for a new police union contract in 2016 because she expected the unarmed officers would be added.

"Over the course of the negotiations with the Portland Police Association, much of the original intent has been watered down," Fritz says. "I am very disappointed."

Outside observers are also perplexed.

"It seems like, if it is a priority, they would have done it faster," says Dan Handelman, who runs Portland Copwatch. "It's very frustrating that it's taken this long."

The mounted patrol served as a kinder, gentler face of the Police Bureau. The horse-and-cop duos patrolled Old Town and helped control protests, but unlike officers in cruisers, they also served as a public relations team.

"Groups of kids, parents, teenagers and elderly, they all come up, they want to see the horses, they want to pet them," Robert Ball, then-president of Friends of the Mounted Patrol, told KATU in 2017. "They end up talking to the police officers, and that is what community policing is all about."

In June 2017, Wheeler cut the mounted patrol from the city budget. The horses were sold to private owners. The officers were reassigned to other units.

But Wheeler promised to use the savings—more than $1 million—to fund 14 unarmed community service officers who would concentrate on improving police interactions with minorities and the homeless.

Advocates say such unarmed officers build trust with citizens most likely to have frequent interactions with police or be victims of crime.

"When you bring your gun and a badge into a situation, it can make some people uneasy," says Sam Sachs, a former Portland park ranger. "If you're not wearing a gun, it kind of changes things."

The city originally proposed the public safety support specialists, or PS3s, as a way to more robustly staff the Police Bureau at a lower cost than simply hiring more sworn police.

The bureau said in 2017 the PS3s would respond to minor car crashes, perform welfare checks, and handle lower-level livability issues. Then-Chief Mike Marshman said the program would be modeled on one in San Diego, where community service officers patrol neighborhoods, write reports and help children safely cross the street after school.

But negotiations with Portland's police union have changed the scope of those jobs. Community service officers are often opposed by police unions, which don't want lower-paying jobs in which officers don't carry guns.

Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, says the PS3s will not respond to any calls for service and won't patrol on their own. Instead, they will focus primarily on support services, like manning the front desk at precincts and waiting for tow trucks to remove disabled vehicles from roadways. "They will not be taking any calls for service whatsoever," Turner says.

Handelman calls the shrinking scope of the PS3s' role a "bait and switch."

The mayor's office says the new officers won't simply be manning desks. "Nothing prevents them from participating in a walking beat with a sworn member," says Wheeler spokeswoman Sophia June, "in addition to attending community events."

Fritz says the negotiated jobs aren't what was promised.

"It is unclear whether these staff will be able to function as independent responders to low-priority calls or take reports," she tells WW. "Their usefulness may be greatly diminished compared with the vision. I will approach all future contract negotiations with PPA with a high degree of skepticism."

The mayor's office concedes it will miss its January 2019 deadline for hiring the first new officers. That deadline was set only after the city failed for a year to make progress in implementing the new program. The Police Bureau says it will start conducting background checks on the first round of potential hires in January.

The mayor's staff says the new officers remain a top priority. "We are prioritizing the PS3 program," June says.

The false starts and delays show the steepness of the challenge Wheeler took on when he campaigned on police reform. But they also raise questions about how urgently the mayor and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw have pursued his promised changes.

"Chief Outlaw has been steadfastly committed to this program, and is looking forward to the deployment of PS3s," the Police Bureau wrote in emailed answers to WW's questions.

Community policing has long been a stated priority for Portland mayors, dating back to Vera Katz.

"These institutions take a long time to change sometimes," Copwatch's Handelman says. "Maybe, eventually, if we got a larger squad of these [PS3s], we wouldn't need as many armed officers."

The mayor had a model for the new job: park rangers, a position Commissioner Nick Fish created in 2012.

"If they used that model, I think they'd be successful," says Sachs, the former park ranger who now sits on the Portland Committee on Community Engagement Policing, which oversees investigations of the Police Bureau. "Park rangers are ambassadors first, and code enforcers second."

Union president Turner tells WW the city did not begin earnestly pursuing the agreement until late July 2018, a full year after the City Council funded the program.

The city and the union have only just this month come to a tentative agreement to ratify the positions.

Marquis Fudge, a labor relations analyst for the city's Bureau of Human Resources, says he became involved in the contract negotiations with the police union in July. He says the negotiations took a typical length of time, spanning about four months until an early agreement was reached in October. He says he doesn't know why the city didn't start the negotiations sooner.

June, the mayor's spokeswoman, says informal negotiations started well before that. "The late timing of formal bargaining," she says, "was due to scheduling conflicts among the PPA representatives."

Even as the city slowly moved toward creating the new positions, Outlaw and Wheeler lobbied the City Council to fund 58 additional sworn officers—who would carry guns and perform traditional police functions.

His staffers say the mayor is committed to improving the relationship between the public and police. They point to several programs that predate Wheeler's tenure and a new civilian oversight committee required under a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

"The mayor is delivering on his promises to improve community policing," June says.

This story has been updated after print deadlines with new information.

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