Police in Portland are stretched thin right now with a growing gang problem and a shortage of officers. But it’s not just crime that has the city searching for more officers. Departments across the country are also having problems finding people to wear the badge.

Portland Police Chief Larry O’Dea said street crime in Portland is at a 40-year low. He made a decision over the summer to move some officers from neighborhood patrols to the gang unit, a sign of the compromises the department is making to keep the public safe with the resources it currently has. 

“We pulled six bodies out of patrol that we didn’t have to spare, to help support the gang team,” O’Dea said.

He also explained the officer shortage isn’t only about keeping up with the gangs.

Neighborhoods, such as the North Park Blocks, suffered once officers got moved around. They became riddled with public sex, drug-use, filth, and people suffering mental health crises for a time until the city responded to public outcry and concern.

O’Dea said that’s also an example of how police work has changed over the years.

“It’s not a crime for somebody to be standing on a street corner screaming their head off but it scares people, they call the police and they want something to be done so they feel safe,” he explained.

The Portland Police Bureau is currently down 35 positions. There are just 948 sworn officers who do police work compared to 1,062 in 2013. Some of those officers retired. Other positions were cut because of the economy two years ago.

“That year we lost 55 positions: 50 sworn positions and five non-sworn positions,” O’Dea said.

O’Dea needs those positions back before the bureau has to face an even bigger shortage.

“In the next three years we’ll have 300 people eligible to retire,” he said.

That’s 32 percent of the force who could retire. Portland isn’t the only city in the country bracing itself to fill hundreds of positions. Departments across the country from Boston, Massachusetts to Los Angeles, California are making big hiring pushes. Police academies can’t keep up with demand.

“We have what I call the ‘Perfect Storm.’ We have people retiring. We have a good economy. We have a lot of jobs out there,” said Executive Director of Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) Eriks Gabliks.

Cadets spend 16 weeks at the training center in Salem learning the ropes of police work — everything from shooting a handgun to performing traffic stops and pursuits.

“They learn about hard work, dedication, honesty and integrity,” said Portland Police Sgt. Willy Goff. He’s in charge of the bureau’s training programs in Salem and in Portland.
The problem is Salem can’t graduate recruits fast enough to meet the demand for officers for two reasons: training classes are full yet they aren’t finding enough qualified candidates.

Gabliks told KATU News in an email that DPSST is budgeted to offer 13 Basic Police classes between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2017. Each class is 16 weeks long and has 40 officers.

DPSST is budgeted to offer five Basic Corrections classes during that same time. Those are six weeks long and also have 40 officers. 

Gabliks said DPSST is requesting funding to hold four additional Basic Police classes and two additional Basic Corrections classes. That will allow training for 160 additional police officers and 80 additional corrections officers based on the increase in hiring that’s both happening and anticipated.

Gabliks said classes are already full going into next year. Any newly hired police officer can’t start training until January 25, 2016. Any newly hired corrections officer can’t get a class seat until April 11, 2016.

But adding more training classes is only half the solution to solving the officer shortage.

Once DPSST adds training classes, departments still have to fill classroom slots with qualified candidates. O’Dea told KATU News only about one in 20 people who apply to be an officer with the Portland Police Bureau are eligible.

O’Dea said the comprehensive background check weeds a lot of people out.

“We see a lot of drug use. See some poor decision-making. See some pretty immature behavior at times,” he said.

O’Dea also believes there’s another reason for a drop-off in qualified candidates: The officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown in August of 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, and the public backlash that sent shockwaves across the country.

“We’re still that post-Ferguson era where it is harder to get people who want to come to this profession. They’re looking at maybe doing some other things,” O’Dea explained.

But he believes he’ll find enough good men and women from diverse backgrounds to join his team in time.

“We hire a lot of people now with behavioral health backgrounds, psychology backgrounds, sociology backgrounds, social science backgrounds, because that’s just a much more, bigger component of the job anymore,” O’Dea said.

Gabliks said potential police candidates should look for openings on the web pages for specific departments. That includes the Portland Police Bureau.

Most departments offer ride-alongs to anyone who is interested in a police experience or who has questions before submitting an application.

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