Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Portland 101: Young activists explore police department

Published in the Portland Phoenix

There are three streets in Portland that police lieutenant Janine Roberts won't walk down alone, learned a group of interested citizens organized by the League of Young Voters on a visit to the Portland Police Department last Wednesday.
The 26-year veteran of the force demurred when asked to name the streets, but did impart a lot of other interesting information in a 90-minute session that was the first site visit in the League's "Portland 101" series.
Designed to familiarize people with how the city functions through visits to various departments, the series is a multi-week introduction to Portland for people who want to get more involved in civic life, whether politically or otherwise. With different tours every week from now through early November, and occasional meetings to encourage participants to use social media to spread their information, Portland 101 is also a sort of boot camp for activists. The Portland Phoenix is participating in the series to spread the information participants gather even more widely, and to encourage anyone who is interested to seek more information from city staff or the League of Young Voters.
Roberts started with a brief overview of the department, which has about 145 active officers (some are on leave for military service or medical reasons; the department maxes out at 156), with another 65 civilian (non-sworn, non-badged) staffers who handle emergency communications and assist with administrative duties. There are three branches — patrol, detective, and command bureaus — the latter two of which typically work weekday business hours. (They do get called in on nights and weekends as needed if something happens that requires their skills.)
The patrol group is split into three teams, working day, evening, and midnight shifts. They cover 11 beats: six on the peninsula side of I-295 and five north and west of the highway.
Officers rotate among the three shifts, and mostly work four 10-hour days each week. Some officers do work five eight-hour days to make sure there's enough coverage at transition times. (Many officers also participate in secondary teams, for handling situations requiring special skills or equipment, including crisis negotiation, tactical response, water emergencies, bombs, and hazardous-materials incidents.) There is also a single animal-control officer.
The department responds to between 75,000 and 80,000 calls each year. "Some months can be busier than others," Roberts said. "February can be pretty slow on the night shift."
Those result in 15,000 to 18,000 reports (plus an additional 4000 accident reports annually), most of which are assigned to detectives for followup with the victim or witnesses or other agencies.
Then the meeting turned to questions on a range of topics, some of which happened during a tour of the building.
DRUGS "We have a lot of drugs in our city," Roberts said, which leads to crime because addicts need money to buy drugs. She didn't specify — and nobody asked — which drugs were most common here.
DOGS The city has three police dogs that can search for people, and three more that can search for bombs. The latter three are funded by the Transportation Security Administration because Portland is home to the jetport, a cruise-ship terminal, and train and bus terminals.
FOOT PATROLS There are foot beats in the Old Port and along Congress Street, Roberts said. In other neighborhoods, officers often try to walk parts of their areas, but that depends on how many other officers are on duty, as well as the volume of calls coming in.
PANHANDLING "Panhandling is legal; aggressive panhandling isn't," Roberts said. When police get complaints about people begging on the streets, it can be difficult for them to take any action. "We need you, as a citizen victim, to give us a statement," or there's nothing the cops can do. Even with a statement, though, nuisance crimes can be challenging to get prosecuted; police have to actively communicate with the district attorney's office to highlight problem offenders, or the DA will often opt not to prosecute.
YOUTH RELATIONS The department has a youth services officer, sponsors an "activities league" for kids to do various things (mostly sports), and school resources officers (in coordination with the school department). A "positive-ticket" program just entered the schools, in which when officers see kids doing something good (helping a peer, using a crosswalk, wearing a bike helmet, for example), they get a certificate from the police that can be redeemed for a reward (such as an ice-cream cone, a session of swimming at a community pool, or other activity). Roberts said the officers' goal is "treating the youth with respect even when we're not getting it."
DANGER TO OFFICERS Nationally, every 53 hours an officer is killed in the line of duty, Roberts said. By contrast, in Portland, once a week there's a minor injury on duty (though in 2008 and 2009 two officers were killed in service-related incidents, but both occurred while the officers were not actually on duty). Roberts and her colleagues stay conscious of the danger. "Tell him to wear his vest," she said to an attendee who mentioned that a friend was planning to become an officer.
GANGS Most of the gang activity is centered around boys and young men ages 14 to 22, and includes the Tiny Raskal Gang and the Bloods as well as other national or international gangs. There are also local "wannabe gangs" that cause havoc in some neighborhoods, she said, as well as motorcycle gangs, including the Outlaws, the Iron Horsemen, the Mountain Men, and the Hells Angels. Most gang activity involves drugs and prostitution, Roberts said.
EVIDENCE GATHERING The crimes that occupy most of the evidence technicians' time are burglaries, Roberts said. Those analyses, reports, and diagrams that people see on television shows can take days or weeks to produce accurately.
EMERGENCY COMMUNICATIONS Portland's building houses dispatching and 911-call answering for police, fire, and ambulance service in the Forest City as well as South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. There's a huge shelf of candy and snacks in the dispatch room.
TASERS The department is working on getting all officers certified to carry and use Tasers, after a trial run in 2009.
BECOMING AN OFFICER Candidates must pass written and physical tests, a thorough background check, a polygraph, and a medical examination, as well as complete the state's police academy. Officers must have a high-school education and a two-year college degree (a four-year degree is preferred).
GAY OFFICERS Roberts admitted she did not know every single officer well enough to give a full count, but said she knew of two openly lesbian officers and one openly lesbian civilian employee of the department; she said she knew of no openly gay men in the department.