Portland’s top cop talks crime, gangs, budgets, and priorities — in Powellhurst-Gilbert

IN HIS WORDS: Portland Police Bureau Chief Mike Reese is blunt as he talks about his top priorities, and the challenges that he – and the Police Bureau – face, in the coming months. You’ll learn a lot from this fascinating, candid talk …

At the September Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association meeting, Mark White, the association’s President, welcomes Portland Police Bureau Chief Mike Reese.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
In many ways, the September 19 meeting of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association was like many such meetings that are held regularly across outer East Portland.

Or it was, until the arrival of Portland Police Bureau Chief Mike Reese, who fulfilled his promise to come and speak frankly about the bureau he’s led for the last four months – after being promoted from the position of Commander of East Precinct.

Reese truly came through on his promise, and gave a fascinating talk – here, only lightly edited – in his own words

> To read about his background, see the article we published when Mike Reese became Commander of East Precinct, earlier this year: CLICK HERE.

By way of introduction, Chief Mike Reese said his ties are strong to outer East Portland for many reasons, including having met the woman he married while serving on the David Douglas Safety Action Team when he was a Multnomah County Deputy Sheriff – and when the area was still unincorporated. “This is a great neighborhood, and I spent a lot of time out here”, he began.

“It is an honor to be here tonight.  It’s been a whirlwind – I’ve been Chief of Police for four months and a couple of weeks. It seems like every few days something of importance happens. The intensity and the pace [of the job] is something that surprised me – it is relentless.

“I feel very humble to be working as the Chief of Police. We have one of the finest police departments in the United States.  I am so glad to be able to represent that department, and you.  I really believe that I work for you.

“I want to talk a little bit about the four priorities that I have as chief.”

Chief Reese outlines his four priorities as he guides the Portland Police Bureau.

Priority #1: Public Safety
“My first priority is your safety. I too live in Portland. My goal is to continue that – to keep you safe – and working with you to improve public safety.

“Portland is one of the safest cities in the United States. About a year ago, Forbes Magazine ranked all the major cities in the United States; we’re number one, in terms of public safety.  We have a very low crime rate – we have one of the lowest crime rates we’ve had in decades, going back to the late 1960s.

“This is because of the good work, both of the [staff of the] police department, and of the citizens. This is also because of other things, such as Measure 11.

“We are seeing a spike in crime this year, starting in January – [primarily] burglaries, and car theft. When I was [Commander of] East Precinct, in March we pulled in all of our detectives and Neighborhood Response Team officers, and pointed out that the burglaries were up about 60% from last year. We looked to find out what was driving this, and more important, what we could do about it.

“We put resources, citywide, to work on those problems – and we’re starting to see some dividends from that.  We’ve [identified] some very prolific burglars.  Upon their arrest, we see a decline in burglaries – each individual might be responsible for as many as 30 burglaries. One arrest can make a major impact.”

Speaks about gangs – and crime
“Gang crime has been a lot in the news lately; it’s touching virtually all parts of our community.  In the 1990s, gang-related crimes were, primarily, North or Northeast Portland issues.

“When I was assigned in 1992 to the Rockwood Action Team, we were seeing some of these gang members starting to occupy low-income housing apartments there, and in [outer] East Portland. We wanted to get on that, and begin preventative programs.

“Now, we’re seeing gangs widely dispersed throughout the city. Part of that is because of the gentrification of North and Northeast Portland. Part of it is the urban renewal of those areas.  We’ve got to have that same kind of urban renewal out here, also.  We need to create economic wealth for everyone in our community.  We need to have jobs, and safe places for everyone to live

“With the dispersal of gangs [throughout the City], it’s a lot harder to for us as police, and for you as neighbors, to combat gang crime. It makes it easier for gang members to ‘hide’ when there is a pocket of gang activity at SE 82nd Avenue of Roses and SE Flavel Street, and another pocket of activity at NE 162nd Avenue and East Burnside.  We’ve also had gang houses pop up around 89th Avenue near E. Burnside, and along SE Division Street.

“We’re working diligently with our community partners, like ONI, and our gang outreach folks. This is a very finite group of gang members – but even though their numbers are fewer then they were in the 1990s – they’re very violent right now. They’re primarily shooting each other; but we still want to stop this activity.

“We want to identify those people who are involved in gang activity.  We want to reach out and touch them and their family.  We’re working with Parole and Probation, [imposing restrictions] so they can’t be out late at night, and restricting them from being in certain geographic areas that we’ve identified as ‘gang hotspots’.

“Working with the Mayor, who started these initiatives, we’re restricting people who’ve been convicted of gun crimes from being at those geographic gang hotspots.  If we see them there, whether they have a gun or not, we can arrest them for trespassing in that area.  It makes it much easier for us, from an enforcement point of view, to keep them out of those hotspots.”

Looks to reforming gang members
“Were working and praying every day that we have success in turning peoples’ lives around, and having a [positive] impact on these young people.  If you’re 17 to 25 years of age, and you don’t see any hope for yourself and your society – and all you have is selling drugs, or stealing – it’s not a very positive lifestyle. If you have no hope, you probably get into a gang or get involved with other behavior that is not positive. But if you see an opportunity for education or for jobs, you will become part of our community rather than someone who needs to be removed from society.

“And, we’re looking toward having long-term impacts on crime, not just displacing it to someone else’s neighborhood. [We’re also looking for solutions that are not] a short-term ‘Band-Aid’ of arresting people and incarcerating them – they do their time, and then they’re back in the community.

“We’ve had really good success in downtown Portland, with drug offenders, getting them into treatment, and holding them accountable.  Either they get healthy, or they go back to jail.  Pretty soon, they get tired of going to jail, and they go to drug treatment. After drug treatment we work to help them get housing and jobs.  This really works.”

Restoring community trust in his bureau is another priority item, Chief Reese says.

Priority #2: Building Community Trust
“I think we have some work to do there.  We are a very, very fine police department, but there’ve been some incidents in the last couple of years that have given us a concern, whether or not we are on the right track.

“We’ll rebuild community trust, first, by showing that we are accountable for what we do.  When we make mistakes I want to a knowledge that, and strive to do better, and hold our employees accountable for doing good work. Building community partnerships with you [here at] neighborhood meetings is part of that.

“When you get to know police officers, like your district’s police officer – it creates greater trust in us and in the Portland Police Bureau.”

Calls for more trust with minority communities
“We needed to work with our minority communities.  Many of our minority communities feel disfranchised because they have a lot of negative interaction with the Portland Police Bureau.  These are the communities that are victimized most often. And, they are often the people who are committing crime.  We are doing everything that we can do, reaching to those communities.  It’s not only race, but also economic [issues].

“For instance, we’re dealing a lot of homeless issues these days.  When I started in police work, 21 years ago, our rate of serious crimes was high.  Now, we have a very low crime rate.  Officers are dealing more and more with social disorder.

Challenges of modern ‘Social Disorder’
“Instead of chasing bank robbers and going after people who have committed violent crime, we’re dealing with homelessness, we are dealing with drug addiction, and we’re dealing with mental illness.

“Part of improving trust in those communities comes from building our capacity to work with those groups better.  It’s tough.  Social disorder is not easy to deal with.  The solutions we’re trying to achieve are not necessarily within the Police Bureau’s expertise, or its even ability to control those outcomes.  The social safety net that existed for a lot of these folks is gone.

“[Our elected leaders] made choices to keep our schools whole, but the ‘safety net’ for some of those folks – for example, with mental illness – is gone.  The police are the folks who must respond.

“Unfortunately, by the time someone has spiraled into a mental health crisis and we’re getting called, they’re often a danger to themselves or to others. This can lead to tragic outcomes.  It can also lead to our jails being overpopulated with the mentally ill.

“Having said that, we have the responsibility to treat everyone with respect and professionalism, and to do our best to respond, with compassion, to people who are in need.  Our mindset, when dealing with the mentally ill, is important.

“We can’t treat someone who is mentally ill as if they are a bank robbery suspect. [By being mentally ill,] they’ve not committed a crime; they are a victim of their mental illness.  Yes, they can be dangerous, ranging from being unpredictable to very dangerous – but we still have to treat them with compassion, and do something else besides just locking them up.

“But, whatever system is available to us, we have to make it work.  We’re trying to do some innovative things along that line.”

Priority #3: Creating a healthy work environment
“I have found that the higher I go in an organization, the less impact I have – in terms of telling people what to do.  You think that the Chief of Police could say, ‘do this or that’, and everyone would jump to it. [But, in fact,] the higher up [in the organization] you go, the less interaction you have with the officers who are doing the work here.

“My role is to inspire our people, and create a good work environment for them.  We’re trying to set very clear expectations for officers by telling them what we want them to do, and what the community wants them to do.

“[My message to our people is] ‘We want you officers to be creative and innovative, and we will support that. We want this to be a place where you’ll come to work and enjoy it every single day. [Working as part of the] criminal justice system, over the course of your career, can make you very cynical; we have to fight against that – it’s just part of the nature of police work’.”

Chief Reese talks about the realities of managing his bureau during an economic downturn.

Priority #4: Managing the budget in tough these fiscal times
“In the past, the Police Bureau has had a lot of vacancies – up to 100 officers down from our authorized strength [number of officers].  About a year and a half ago, the City Council said that these vacancies drive up overtime costs and have other negative consequences.  So, [Chief Sizer] hired up to our authorized strength.

“Then, unfortunately, we found we had very little room in our budget. We then realized that getting up to authorized strength could have a negative impact on our organization. Last year, when the Chief’s office was building the budget, they realized we would have to lay off police officers.

“That led to the budget fiasco between the Mayor, the Chief, and the Commissioner in charge of our bureau – which led to a bunch of other things – and here I am.

“Having said all that, we really need to be good stewards of the public resources.  In past resources we have not been as accountable as we should be about budgets.  At ‘full strength’, we didn’t have any [flexibility] in the budget.  Now, we’re down a few vacancies, but our budget is still very tight.

“We now have to have really good fiscal management policies in place.  All of our division managers are very mindful of how they’re managing their resources. We are very committed to working with you – neighborhood groups, City Council, Management and Finance, to come up with a budget that works, and that we are allocated enough resources to run a healthy police department.

“I would like to stay Chief for awhile; I really don’t want to get fired over budget issues.”

Chief Reese explains budget impact issues
We later asked Reese to expand on how budgetary issues impact the Police Bureau.

First, Chief Reese agreed that the bureau is doing the best it can with the budget that was established in last year’s City Budget process, which was established long before he was appointed to the post. “We had to lay off 31 non-sworn civilian employees this year.  It was a huge hit for the Portland Police Bureau.

“We’re doing some comparison studies, as I prepare for this budget cycle, involving cities that are like Portland, including Denver, Seattle, San Diego, and San Jose – looking at their budgets.

“Most of these cities are staffed about one officer per thousand population, we are at about 6/10ths officers per thousand. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but when you add it up, we’re about 150 to 200 officers below an optimal level.

“As we look at population increases over the last 10 years, the staffing level of the Police Bureau has gone down or remained stagnant – we’re policing a bigger city with fewer officers than we were a decade ago.  That does have an impact; we don’t have the officers to provide you the service that we did 10 years ago.

“We’ve got to be very agile, and move our resources to respond to emerging crime trends.  It is a bit of a puzzle – moving resources from one precinct to another. And at a certain level, we all pay a price because of that.

“For example we have a very ‘lean’ detective division. This means there’s not as much follow-up on crimes such as burglaries and auto theft as we’d like to have.

“But, the sad fact is that our entire city, county and state governments are suffering, as all of us are, in this economic downturn.  I can’t argue against keeping the community center open, as opposed to funding another five or six police officers.

“These are the tough decisions our City Council has to make.  I think we have to look at how we maintain the different things that make us a healthy community.

“Citizens have the right to ask tough questions, and have a voice in that [City Budget] process.”

Would like involvement in housing issues
Chief Reese was asked if he agreed with the idea that the Portland Police Bureau should be included in City decisions regarding establishing more large-scale, low-income housing in outer east Portland.

Large concentrations of low-income housing, especially without the necessary supporting infrastructure, he said, places an additional load on the police.  He added that he would welcome an opportunity to be involved in future discussions.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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