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Cop numbers low, but so is crime rate

Police chief wants bigger force to head off crime before it begins


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO:JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Police Lieutenant Chris Davis hands a citation to a motorist who was speeding in a school zone along Southwest Capitol Highway. Police Chief Mike Reese says traffic violators are less likely to get caught because staffing has been reduced.Last week a man stepped out of Kell’s Irish Restaurant & Pub downtown and was robbed at gunpoint in the bar’s parking lot. The robber took the man’s cash and left. There were no witnesses, and no obvious clues, such as stolen credit cards, that might easily lead police to the robber. Police say it’s possible that if someone were to pull video footage from surveillance cameras in the area, the crime and traceable clues might show up. But nobody’s looking at that footage. No detective is assigned to the case, and no investigation is taking place.

Also last week, a pedestrian on Maryland Street in North Portland was beaten and robbed by two men who took his wallet and, according to witnesses, punched and kicked the victim for 30 to 40 seconds while he lay on the ground. Again, Portland police are not investigating the crime.

There simply aren’t enough detectives to investigate all the crimes, even violent crimes, committed in Portland, says Sgt. Joe Santos, responsible for assigning robbery cases in the police bureau’s detective division. As Portlanders have come to recognize in recent years, most cases involving theft, including stolen cars, do not get investigated by detectives anymore.

Santos says he wishes he had a detective to assign to the North Maryland robbery, but he doesn’t have the staff to investigate most crimes unless the evidence is readily apparent or the crime clearly connects to other crimes.

“I’m balancing this case against a Plaid Pantry case where there’s a video and a serial pattern where people have done multiple robberies,” he says.

A chart shows the number of police officers per 1,000 people.Portland police chief Mike Reese frequently comments on the leanness of the police force he heads, and he’s right. Portland has only 1.7 police officers per 1,000 residents. That’s low compared to most cities Portland’s size, or any other size. Minneapolis has 2.3 officers per 1,000 residents, Seattle has 2.2.

But here’s Reese’s problem. Even with an incredibly small police force, violent crime here is incredibly rare. And Reese’s small police force is still effective. For instance, Portland has only 95 detectives, which translates to 1.6 detectives for every 10,000 city residents. Other, similar-size cities have two or three times as many detectives investigating crimes. But the bureau’s robbery division detectives still have a 50 percent success rate in closing cases — a rate comparable to cities with many more detectives.

Seattle and Minneapolis both have significantly larger per capita police forces and higher violent crime rates than Portland. Last week, as a matter of fact, Portland set the city’s record for its longest streak without a homicide — 82 days and counting as of Wednesday. So far this year there have been only eight homicides in Portland. Some cities have eight homicides in a week; Portland had 54 homicides in a year as recently as 1993.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO:  JAIME VALDEZ - Portland Police Lieutenant Chris Davis uses a radar gun to track motorists on Southwest Capitol Highway. Though the number of traffic officers has been reduced, Police Chief Mike Reese says with a larger force he would first devote more officers to gang and domestic violence work, and school patrols.

Community policing needed

Reese can’t escape the fact that Portland is a very safe city, but he would like to bring police staffing closer to the levels of other, similar-size cities. For one thing, property crime in Portland is close to the average for cities of similar size. For another, Portland officers increasingly are spending their time not fighting crime, but handling social service situations, such as calls to help people suffering mental illness. But Reese knows that when people look at police staffing, they start with crime rates.

A Portland police force with the same per capita number officers as Seattle’s would mean an extra two or three dozen officers, and Reese says he’d use them to beef up gang enforcement, add officers assigned to schools, and increase the number of officers assigned to work domestic violence cases.

A chart shows the differences between cities in the East and the West.All three of those assignments create opportunities for what Reese calls “creative engagement,” the type of community policing that allows officers to establish community relationships that can lead to lower crime rates: Gang enforcement officers, for instance, working proactively with gang members, or youth who might be dissuaded from becoming gang members.

Reese says his police force is missing too many opportunities to head off crime before it happens. “The leaner you become, the more reactive you are forced to become,” he says.

Basically, police involvement comes in two forms. Either people call a crime in to 911, or police find crime on their own.

James Guffey, an Oakland, Calif., police officer for 15 years who now teaches criminal justice at National University in Stockton, studied 30 cities and their police officers per capita rate, and he’s convinced the number of officers matters a lot for specifically the reasons Reese cites.

About half of the crime in any city is going to be committed by a small percentage of serial criminals, Guffey says. The math, he says, is simple: “When you start taking these bad guys off the street you’re going to start reducing the amount of crime.”

The way to get the serial criminals, Guffey says, is through specialized units such as gang enforcement teams that do proactive and undercover policing. And those are the units that are eliminated as downsized police bureaus are forced to put more officers on the street responding to 9-1-1 calls.

Sgt. Santos of the robbery division says last year he assigned detectives to investigate fewer than half of the city’s 975 robberies. With a few more detectives he could get more cases assigned. But simply putting more officers on the street may not be the most efficient way to combat crime, even in relatively safe Portland, according to Santos.

Network needed to combat crime

More officers might mean more arrests and more jail time for offenders, Santos says. That could bottleneck the criminal justice system unless more prosecutors, courts and prison staff are added as well. Defense attorneys might add more public defenders to that list. Social service administrators might include more addiction treatment specialists to treat addicted criminals.

“More cops isn’t necessarily the answer,” Santos says. “The system has to grow together.”

Traffic stops are another example of a crime that only gets reported if police get involved.

“We have very little capacity to do traffic enforcement,” Reese says. “You can watch for a short period of time at any controlled intersection, you’re (seeing drivers) running red lights and talking on cell phones.”

Traffic violations don’t show up in any databases unless police are out there looking for traffic violators. The same goes for quality of life nuisance crimes that dominate much of the conversation about the downtown street scene — they represent an undocumented crime and violation rate that is dependent on police discovery.

Criminology experts say a critical measure of a police bureau’s ability to proactively deal with crime is the percentage of calls that are initiated by officers. In 2012, Portland police initiated 159,805 calls for service, a rate of 350 self-initiated calls per 1,000 residents. That’s a significant decline from the 371 calls per 1,000 residents initiated by police in 2008. Reese may be right — his officers appear to be responding more and proactively policing less.

Simply comparing the size of Portland’s police force to other cities doesn’t make sense, says Northeast Portland resident John Campbell, a consultant to cities across the country on policing matters. One of Campbell’s specialties is helping

cities figure out how many police they need. Campbell says cities rarely get it right. City crime rates rarely correlate with the number of police on the street, Campbell says. On the other hand, he says, it’s obvious that if a city cut its police force in half or more, crime would increase.

“Policing is a really frustrating thing to manage because the ultimate measurement for policing is absence of crime and disorder, and how do you measure a crime that didn’t happen? It’s a difficult thing to do,” Campbell says.

A city with a progressive criminal justice system that sends low-level offenders to community courts and makes sure they suffer consequences, supports addiction therapy for criminals, and keeps violent and serial offenders in prison may do more to lower crime rates than more police, Campbell says.

Campbell is a proponent of community policing, and thinks self-initiated calls are a reasonable measure of that. But he says a dearth of traffic officers stopping cars doesn’t indicate more drivers are speeding or running stop signs. Traffic calming efforts such as speed bumps may be doing the job just as well as more traffic police.

Theories on crime decline

A chart shows the number of detectives in several cities.Violent crime has been sharply declining across the United States in the last three decades, and criminologists have offered a number of theories to explain the drop. One has it that young men commit most crime, and the percentage of the population comprised of young men has been declining. For what it’s worth, 14.5 percent of Portland’s population are men between 18 and 34 years old. That’s a lower percentage than Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and Seattle, which all have higher violent crime rates than Portland. But Oklahoma City has a lower percentage of young men than Portland, and a much higher violent crime rate.

Campbell says Oregon’s mandatory sentencing laws initiated by Measure 11’s passage 19 years ago has probably put away enough serial offenders to affect the crime rate.

Another popular theory correlates the nationwide drop in violent crime with legalized abortion and higher abortion rates, positing that fewer unwanted children become adults who might commit crimes. More recently, researchers have correlated the lead additives in gasoline with nationwide crime rates. The idea is that more lead in the environment increases the number of children born with brain maladies such as attention deficit disorder, and more people with those problems eventually leads to more crime.

But with people moving so much from city to city, it would be nearly impossible to correlate local abortion and air pollution rates from years ago with local crime rates.

And then there’s one more possible explanation for Portland’s low violent crime rate — simple demographics. Violent and property crime rose in east Multnomah County and Gresham last year. It’s possible gentrification has simply moved crime out of Portland into some of its surrounding areas.