Charlie Hales says he's crossed paths with the Portland police during his campaign for mayor—and he hasn't always liked what he's seen.

He talks of a recent weapons stop he witnessed at Southeast 162nd Avenue and Stark Street where six cop cars responded to one “kid with a gun.” With such a heavy response by police, Hales says, “questions come up.”

Hales also tells a story about walking in Holladay Park with neighborhood advocates who were trying to bring a positive on-the-ground presence. Hales watched a patrol car drive onto the park's walkway "at speed," he says, "scattering pedestrians and families."

"What the hell?" Hales says. "What's going on here?"

Hales, who's assumed the role of front-runner in the mayor's race, has made challenging the Portland Police Bureau's status quo a recurring part of his stump speech, even at the risk of second-guessing what officers were doing in specific—even dangerous—situations.

It's a provocative stance for a mayoral candidate hoping to oversee the police and push them toward community policing. 

His opponent, state Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-East Portland), has also talked about connecting the police more closely to citizens. His proposals are more detailed than Hales', but not as far-reaching.

Portland Police Association president Daryl Turner bristles at Hales' anecdotes.

"Sometimes citizens see officers doing things and they don't know the reason why," Turner says. "They come to conclusions based on what they see, rather than giving the officer the benefit of the doubt."

Hales says Portland's community policing reached its zenith under former Chief Charles Moose, who ran the bureau from 1993 to 1999. Since then, the bureau has struggled with its image as high-profile shootings and excessive-force cases have mounted.

The U.S. Department of Justice last month criticized the bureau's "pattern and practice" of excessive force against the mentally ill.

Smith and Hales have largely supported the reforms called for by the DOJ. While Hales lauds some officers for their close ties to the neighborhoods they serve, he says most city dwellers don't view the police as an open and inviting presence.

"We have room for improvement there, to say the least," he says.

Smith had the police union's endorsement until Oct. 11, when the group yanked its support following reports that Smith hadn't told the truth about a 1993 misdemeanor assault charge for striking a woman at a college party.

Smith says he won't rely on more foot patrols—often a key component of community policing—but rather more comprehensive community-based reform.

He says the city can improve its training at a new facility (approved by the City Council in March); create a volunteer MAX line watch; and form partnerships with nonprofits—reforms Smith says can be done "for a relatively low price point."

In an organization that often makes  major changes as quickly as a tree leaks sap, Hales says the push for community policing will have to come from the top—the mayor and the police chief. 

Chief Mike Reese nearly ran for mayor last fall, only to back off in the wake of the chaos stemming from shutting down the Occupy Portland camps.

Hales won't say if he will insist on a new chief. "I want to give Chief Reese every opportunity to succeed," he says. When asked if that sounds like Reese is on probation, Hales pauses and adds, "Aren't we all?"

But Hales' choice of advisers is telling: He tops his list with former Chief Rosie Sizer, whom Reese replaced after Mayor Sam Adams fired her in 2010 for criticizing his police budget. Sizer, who now lives in Bend, couldn't be reached for comment.

Smith says he won't discuss replacing Reese. He says the police chief's job has seen too much turnover: four chiefs in the past 10 years.

"I'm not too hasty in ousting a chief who has the ability and commitment to address the challenges, even if it takes more than a year," Smith says. (Reese declined to comment for this story.)

Turner, the union president, says Hales' talk about community policing is just a "political buzzword" for "old-school" tactics police have practiced for decades. He says budget cuts have made those efforts less effective, and the city needs to increase police staffing by 25 percent.

"It's not reinventing the wheel," Turner says.

Hales has yet to explain how he will pay for a shift in policing strategy that will require a more labor-intensive approach and more money. He hasn't said whether he'd spend more on police or find savings in the bureau's $167 million budget.

Vancouver, Wash., created a neighborhood police officer program about five years ago. Neighborhoods loved the change, but police cut their property crimes unit to pay for it.

Still, cities such as Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Boston have won awards from the U.S. Department of Justice for their community policing programs.

"It starts with who we hire, and how we train and how we assign work," Hales says, "and what’s considered prestigious in the bureau.”