Problematic Behavior or Activity
Neighborhoods in Portland voiced concerns over the presence of large numbers of homeless youth (aka “travelers” or “road warriors”) in the city, presenting a difficult problem for law enforcement to manage. The offenses committed by these homeless youth are usually extremely minor, such as littering and prohibited camping. Arrest is not a viable solution for several reasons: jail policy typically prohibits booking on these minor offenses; prosecution is frequently declined; there is little governmental interest in intervention; and there is a significant risk of civil liability (see Anderson vs. City of Portland, 2012).
Encampments swelled to the point of chaos, culminating in several major assaults and stabbings, which were attributed to this houseless/unsheltered population. Citizens began to fear for their safety due to the visibly large homeless population.
Instead of focusing on enforcing rules, we decided to treat houseless/unsheltered individuals as stakeholders in the community. We focused on relationship-building and showing them that it is in their own best interest to take ownership. We created a new foot patrol, consisting of a team of officers focused on building positive relationships with youth living on the street, residents, and business owners. In conjunction with social service providers, the team also acted as a conduit for resources. This foot patrol focused on two primary zones, with some flexibility as resources allowed: Southwest 3rd Avenue and Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
Program utilizes existing resources and funds. Currently there are eight officers and one sergeant, working as a part of the afternoon shift in uniform, spread out over the week as much as possible. Because officers are working in conjunction with and as a part of patrol, they are able to assist with calls for service as workload demands.
Community surveys were distributed in both areas in April 2014 and again in October 2014 as a measure of community response to the project. Surveys recorded public opinion on sense of safety as well as city and police response to issues of crime and livability. Surveys between the two areas were compiled separately. The top complaints expressed in all four surveys centered around issues of safety due to our homeless population. Survey responses were often in strong support of the community policing model as conducted by the foot patrol.
In addition to positively impacting fear of crime and improving relationships between the police and community, the foot patrol also had an impact on crime. Crime decreased by 20% in Hawthorne and 23% Downtown. Foot patrol officers furthermore tracked and arrested serious offenders for crimes such as jewelry theft, rape, and murder. Firsthand knowledge of “who’s who” in the community led to the cracking of major cases.
Critical Success Factors
Community Policing is based on a philosophy that recognizes the interdependence and shared responsibility of the police and community in making Portland a safer, more livable city. This method of policing encourages a partnership that identifies community safety issues, determines resources, and applies innovative strategies designed to create and sustain healthy, vital neighborhoods. This method of policing facilitates the development of trust between police and the public, which in turn promotes efficiency in regard to law enforcement.
This is a resource-intensive endeavor that is not likely to be sustainable for long periods of time by most agencies. It requires buy-in from officers and a cultural shift from a law-enforcement emphasis to relationship-building. Officers report that the work, while rewarding, is also psychologically and emotionally demanding. It requires a significant staffing commitment.