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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Police Chief: Cutting Command Positions Would Hurt Reforms

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Mar 6, 2014 at 1:48 PM

Police Chief Mike Reese has been pushing back hard against a controversial city council staffing study that suggested, as a worst-case scenario, cutting 23 police command positions as a way to save the city $2.5 million.

The study, overseen by Commissioners Steve Novick and Nick Fish, looked at supervisor and employee ratios in the city's workforce, a statistic also known (wonkily) as the city's "span of control"—but focused heavily on the Portland Police Bureau. It was first published yesterday, by the Mercury, though it's been a touchy subject in city hall and in the Portland Police Bureau for several weeks.

Reese, in a memo (pdf) sent to Novick and Fish last Friday, said he wanted to wait for a separate, independent, and police-focused staffing study before making any changes. That study, he wrote, is close to starting—with a contractor about to hired. The chief didn't pull punches when warning what would happen if the city council moved forward on the current report before then. He says it would imperil federally mandated reforms currently sitting in front of a federal judge.

Several Bureau sworn command positions require command officers due to the experience, scope and complexity of the positions, and the need to provide executive-level oversight and accountability. Examples of such positions include (but are not limited to): the Operations Branch Executive Officer, the Professional Standards Lieutenant and the Force Inspector. The nature of this work is critical in our law enforcement agency. The study’s proposed reductions in supervisory positions will severely impact accountability and oversight of Bureau operations.

The elimination or demotion of supervisory positions in the City’s span of control study is also directly counter to several of the recommendations in the settlement agreement between the City and the DOJ. A key focus area of the DOJ agreement is increased oversight and accountability.

Reese's memo was released today by Mayor Charlie Hales' office, following reports on the staffing study by the Mercury and then the Portland Tribune. Reese appears to have some backing from the mayor, who oversees the police bureau as police commissioner. A statement released by Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, thanked Fish and Novick for the report. But it also thanked Reese for providing such a detailed response. And, most importantly, it included the following line:

Obviously, more debate is called for in regards to the Portland Police Bureau and other bureaus as well.

The council report included a request for position-specific reorganization plans from the police bureau by April 1—after making a point of saying the bureau hadn't seemed interested in talking about staff reductions. Yesterday, a police spokesman, Sergeant Pete Simpson, said providing that information was the plan. That seems to be less clear right now.

Reese, in his memo, spends some time detailing recent ups and downs in the bureau. Cutbacks in 2009-10 brought the bureau from five precincts and four "executive" branches down to three and three, respectively. He also lays out—never mind that crime continues to hover at historic low levels, a point he likes to make in front of community groups—that staffing has dipped f"rom 1,251 in 1994, to our current level of 1,171positions. Over this same time frame, the population of Portland has grown from 495,000 in 1994 to 592,000 today."

His suggestion, before making cuts to command positions, is to wait a year. He expects the bureau's staffing study, part of its marching orders during last year's budget haggling, to be finished in December.

"In light of the public safety challenges our community faces, the significant changes already undertaken by the Bureau, and the settlement agreement between the City and the Department of Justice, we recommend using the planned organizational study as a guide for any changes to our supervisory to employee staffing ratios.

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