As we work our way through the Covid pandemic, we have to ask what our city will look like when we return to whatever our new normal will be. The pandemic will sadly leave many in dire straits, which is already resulting in an uptick in criminal activity. In March 2020, as the economic and social effects of the virus were only starting to be felt, Portland police recorded 29% more burglaries, robberies and acts of vandalism than in the same month last year. Keeping Portlanders safe must be a top priority of our city, but it cannot be left to the police alone. An effective public safety program demands an inclusive approach.
In fact, until it was closed last August by the Office of Community and Civic Life under Commissioner Eudaly, Portland had a robust Crime Prevention Program that helped neighborhoods come together to address problems that affected everyone. That program had 10 civilian coordinators whose job was to help residents—many mistrustful or fearful of the police—deal with looming problems. If there was a drug house or an abandoned property attracting rats and vandals, the coordinator would work with neighbors to problem-solve, educate them on the “one point of contact” system, and coordinate with agencies to address code violations, child welfare concerns, and to contact absentee landlords.
A central pillar of the Program was Neighborhood Watch. At the time of its closing, the Watch program counted over 400 groups receiving around 80 crime prevention trainings a year. New Watch groups were being created in almost every neighborhood. Apartment Watch, largely focused on lower-income rentals, had seen an upsurge, as vulnerable residents sought ways to cope with the rise of drug crimes and sex-trafficking. Business Watch provided a lifeline to small businesses struggling with escalating property crime. Park Watch brought nearby communities together to report drug dealers and dispose of needles that could be picked up by small children. Trainings also included earthquake and emergency preparedness education.
Yet, after only one focus group of five people providing community input, Civic Life shut it down. In the eight months since, its replacement, Neighbors Together, has conducted very few trainings. Neighborhood Watch signs, which helped prevent crime, are no longer available, and there is no unified case management system, an important component of crime prevention. The result has been to diminish residents’ efforts to watch out for one another in keeping their neighborhoods safe, and instead has made us more dependent on calls to the already understaffed police after crimes have occurred. To eliminate such a successful program without exhaustive community outreach and without a more effective plan is unacceptable.
It’s difficult to understand why this has happened. In an OPB interview, Commissioner Eudaly justified her action by incorrectly claiming that Portland crime rates were down across the board. In fact, PPB statistics show that from 2016 to 2019, reports of violent crime in Portland had risen over 20 percent. False claims of progress don’t make our city safer. Nor does taking away the tools neighbors need to look out for each other and to prevent crimes before needing police involvement.
Crime prevention methods should be periodically reviewed and updated to respond to the needs of a growing and increasingly diverse population as well as to new economic and social challenges. But it should not be done by bureaucratic fiat. More diverse voices need to be heard before making wholesale changes. More than ever, as we come out of the current crisis, we all want and deserve a city where everyone feels safe and supported—and where everyone has a voice.
Stan Penkin, PSAC President
Melanie Billings-Yun, PSAC Secretary
Portland Public Safety Action Coalition (PSAC)