Scott Westerman, president of the Portland Police Association, has taken the city to task for not putting enough officers on the street, particularly in response to gang violence.
The landscape is more complex than that. Better staffing in the police department would be greatly welcomed and a relief. But gang violence is about more than just an enforcement response; it’s about a community response. One of the things I’m most afraid of at the moment is not so much the cuts to the organization, because if we’re smart about the cuts, we can continue to deliver very good service. It’s the cuts that are happening upstream and downstream that concern me.
What do you mean by “upstream and downstream”?
In the Oregonian this morning, there was an article about cuts to drug treatment programs. There are cuts that are occurring in the mental health system in this state, which was in some peril even before these cuts. Those are cuts that are happening upstream from us. Downstream, the district attorney’s office is looking to lose fourteen to seventeen deputy district attorneys. [These attorneys prosecute crimes.]
So what’s going to happen?
I feel very sorry for street officers. In a way it’s going to feel like they’re the Dutch boy putting their fingers in the dike. The role they play is critical both in responding to emergencies, responding to violence, providing order on the streets, and in providing community problem-solving, but they’re only one part of a much larger and more complex system. Police officers are the people who respond to someone’s crisis. They are the visible representation of public safety, and the expectation is that we can fix everything, but if the other systems aren’t functioning, there’s only so much [police] can do. It’s our partners in drug and alcohol treatment, mental health treatment, the district attorneys, and the jail system who are in greater peril than we are at the moment. It’s a pretty concerning time in terms of the larger forces at work, because of the economic downturn.
When President Bush senior visited in the early 1990s, his Secret Service agents nicknamed Portland “Little Beirut” because of the clashes they saw between protestors and police officers. Do you feel that most Portlanders appreciate the job your department does?
As an individual, I have the respect of the community. I often hear from community members that they think I’m doing a great job. My standard response is, “Please say that to the officer on the street. They’re the ones who don’t hear it enough.” I think it’s easy to single me out and like me for how I present myself on TV or for whatever reason, but the officers on the street need the acknowledgement from the community they serve. They would appreciate feeling better supported than they sometimes do. It sounds kind of trite, but it is a partnership, it is a relationship. We’ve been working hard to nurture that relationship, but it takes more than our energies to make it happen.
On your second day as chief, your husband, former Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Noelle, asked how you were feeling. By that, he meant that when you first become chief, it’s a big ego boost, but over time the ego can get pretty bruised.
That was a great reminder at a very good point that it really isn’t about me—it’s about the job you’re doing for the organization and the community. You have to check your ego at the door; you need to have a sense that you’re doing the right thing for the right reason, and it really isn’t about you.
Is Portland safe?
It is. Sometimes residents tend to be very critical of Portland, but when I talk to people from out of town, they’re struck by the vibrancy of this city, by the fact that downtown doesn’t get abandoned at five o’clock, that it’s a living, breathing space at all hours of the day. That is something that’s very different than other cities in this country.