The Portland Police Bureau quietly lost 24 reserve officers after disbanding the Reserve Unit last summer. That dissolution, which was never reported until now, means two-dozen fewer officers who can assist the nearly 1,000 sworn officers of the Police Bureau, which faces a staffing crisis.
Most reserve officers are sworn police who can respond to calls, but they volunteer their time. Some are retired officers, while others are community members who have an interest in police work.
"We thought we were the pinnacle of community policing," says Tim Bailey, a former reserve officer. "Here we are, community members volunteering our time. If you're talking about an organization that touts itself as a community policing organization, which obviously Portland does, it seemed disingenuous to me."
Like many of the reserve officers, Bailey now volunteers with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. The Police Bureau has pledged that new community service officers will replace some of the services the reserves provided, but those hires have hit multiple roadblocks and delays.
Reserve officers performed work that helped free up full-time cops to respond to high-priority calls faster. Many had full police authority. That allowed reserve officers to step in and assist in many scenarios. Reserve officers helped provide support in January 2017, during the Inauguration Day protests and the Women's March.
The unit also served as a pathway to full-time employment, because reserve officers complete the same background check process as full-time cops. A reserve officer could work 500 hours to qualify for full-time employment even if he did not meet the four-year college degree requirement, which broadened bureau's recruitment pool.
"They [were] down 120 positions," says Bailey. "And here's this body of individuals who are backgrounded, qualified, on the ground carrying guns, responding to calls, acting as police officers. It made zero sense that an organization like that would not pay attention to that resource."
Assistant Chief Chris Davis says he understands the disappointment former reserve officers feel, but the task of training the unit to the level required by the U.S. Department of Justice settlement agreement proved too difficult for the bureau's training division. The training division determined it would take months to bring the unit into compliance, and coordinating that training for volunteer officers would be a challenge.
"They feel like we didn't really value their contribution," he says. "Nothing is further from the truth. I have a lot of respect for someone willing to make the commitment to do this work."
What Went Wrong
The Police Bureau lost its reserve officers because it failed to implement a training program to bring the Reserve Unit into compliance with the U.S. Department of Justice settlement agreement requirements.
"We gave them multiple solutions," says former Reserve Unit Commander Robert Ball. "It was a failure of leadership from not only the chief's office but also the mayor's office."
Here's how the opportunity was lost—along with the reserves.
Chief Danielle Outlaw assured the Reserve Unit that it had the bureau's support at its annual banquet. One week later, the Police Bureau removed all reserve officers from performing official police duties.
Leaders in the Reserve Unit say they offered the bureau potential solutions to get reserve officers up to date on DOJ-required training. The nonprofit foundation that supports reserve officers offered to provide $100,000 for training.
The bureau's training division began working, slowly, on a separate plan. Assistant Chief Chris Davis says he remembers the Reserve Unit asking for training, but the training division struggled to develop a plan while simultaneously working on other priorities in the bureau.
After several months, the bureau still had no plan in place to bring reserve officers back on duty. The reserve commander, Robert Ball, wrote a letter appealing directly to Outlaw to save the program and resigned his position. In June, Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said the county would happily take reserve officers.
The last officers in the Reserve Unit quit. One officer was hired as a full-time cop at the bureau. About 18 others joined the newly developed Reserve Unit at the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, where they were given patrol cars and a boat to do much of the same work as deputies.
The Police Bureau is severely understaffed, with 120 sworn positions unfilled and retirements outpacing new hires. Many factors are complicating hiring new officers. Police union president Daryl Turner says the heart of the staffing shortage is "intense anti-police sentiment in our city that City Council seems to share." But there are other problems, such as time-consuming background checks and training that can make the hiring process last nearly a year. Here are two other factors keeping the bureau understaffed.
Delays in Hiring Public Safety Support Specialists
In 2017, Mayor Ted Wheeler allocated more than $1 million to a new program for community service officers, later rechristened public safety support specialists, or PS3s. They are unarmed support staff who can augment the duties of sworn officers, freeing up cops to respond to high-priority calls faster. Nearly two years passed before the city and union negotiated an agreement on what those new hires would do, wear and carry. Assistant Chief Chris Davis says only three applicants have successfully passed a background check, but one of those applicants accepted a job at another police agency. Davis says he expects the first PS3 class to be hired by late summer.
Neighboring Counties Have Pulled Support
Washington County Sheriff Patrick Garrett wrote a memo in February saying his deputies would no longer respond to Portland Police Bureau calls for assistance. The memo, first reported by KPTV FOX 12, blamed the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office for taking all officer-involved shootings to grand juries for review. (MCDA disputes that claim. Spokesman Brent Weisberg says prosecutors do have discretion to decide whether to present an officer-involved shooting to a grand jury.) The Clackamas County sheriff is considering a similar stance because if deputies are involved in a use-of-force incident in Portland, they could be personally liable for financial damages. The controversial move to restrict assistance on calls leaves Portland police with less support on the streets.