In terms of sheer numbers, are we seeing more or fewer incidents of gang violence than other cities in America?
I don’t mean to diminish our problems in any way, but there are other cities that would be envious of our violent-crime numbers, because they are quite low for a city of our size, and that’s inclusive of gang activity. Cincinnati, comparable in size to [Portland], had fifty-one homicides in the first six months of 2007 and fifty-six in the first six months of 2008. The number in Portland in the first six months of 2007 was fifteen; in [the same period of] 2008, we had thirteen. In most of the country, crime has been trending downward, but in some places, it’s been trending upward. Chicago is having a very bad year for homicides. Washington, DC, has had problems. So far in Portland, we’re doing quite well.
How well, overall?
In the last ten years, person crimes [rapes, homicides, robberies, aggravated assaults] are down 50 percent, and property crime [burglary, larceny, vehicle theft, shoplifting, and arson] is down more than 25 percent. If you watch the nightly news, you’d believe it’s all crime, all the time, but if you [look at] public safety on a per capita basis today as compared to ten years ago, we’re in much better shape.
Why do you think that is?
People are exercising greater crime-prevention techniques. Homes are harder to break into now, and people are generally more conscious of their personal safety. But some of it has to do with the economic vitality we’ve experienced over the last ten years or so. There’s greater affluence in this city than there was formerly.
So if the crime rate dropped when the economy was booming, shouldn’t we expect to see a surge in crime as the economy trends downward?
Probably less than you would expect. In the first eleven weeks of this year, which has been economically very challenging—our unemployment rate is over 9 percent [in the weeks after this interview, the unemployment rate rose to more than 10 percent]—overall crime is down 11 percent compared to the same period last year. I think there’s some bit of mythology that in a recession, crime goes up. What we are seeing and hearing about during this recession isn’t that theft numbers and burglaries are going up, it’s really about fraud—not identity theft so much as scammers. All kinds of scammers are out there. It’s important that people hear about those scams and protect themselves.
How has the recession affected the police bureau’s budget and staffing?
As a city bureau, we’ve been asked to prepare budget-cut packages of 2.5 percent to 5 percent—that’s $3.5 million to $7 million. As an organization, we are requesting that if we [implement] a 2.5 percent cut, we do that by restructuring precincts. We did an elaborate budget process with a lot of community input and validated that our core mission is delivering frontline police services. So, we’re loath to cut street officers and are recommending that we restructure from five precincts to three precincts [eliminating the North and Southeast precincts], cutting command supervision and administrative support positions but leaving street officers intact. We don’t have much more capacity to cut into the infrastructure of the organization.