Study: ‘Officers Feel Betrayed’ — Portland Police Say ‘Low Morale’ Stems from ‘Poor Leadership’

Portland police officers chase demonstrators after a riot was declared during a protest against the killing of Daunte Wright on April 12, 2021 in Portland, Oregon. Wright, a Black man whose car was stopped in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota on Sunday reportedly for an expired registration, and not far from where …
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A recent report reveals “low morale”within the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) following the 2020 Black Lives Matter riots and massive budget cuts, KOIN6 reported on Tuesday.

After the protests and riots, far-left Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler — who is also the city’s police commissioner — asked an independent law enforcement investigatory agency called OIR Group to evaluate the bureau for racial and political biases, according to Portland Mercury. OIR released a resulting 80-page report in late January, which includes data from voluntary surveys of 277 PPB employees (27 percent of the bureau), as well as interviews with PPB management and city officials.

“The final report offers no definitive ruling on whether the PPB is racist or politically biased,” Portland Mercury reported, though the study did reveal an overwhelming amount of frustration and discouragement among staff who chose to stay following the summer of unrest.

Those conducting the study wrote in their report that they often heard “leadership” was to blame for officer morale.

The study reads:

When we asked the open-ended question, “If you were in charge of the Bureau for one day, what is one change you would make that would have the greatest impact,” many respondents’ comments were related to Bureau leadership

Our results showed a definite perception that leadership is undermining Bureau effectiveness. And many of the open-ended comments were related to feeling a lack of support from both Bureau and City leadership, especially in the wake of potential prosecution of officers for excessive uses of force and ending special programs and teams.

Out of more than 260 PPB employees poll, 60 percent said they “did not feel supported by the senior leadership of the Bureau.”  When asked about the city government, a “strikingly high number of respondents” (98 percent) said the “city government has made their work more difficult.” Open-ended responses went into greater detail about “low morale coming from a City government that does not understand police, their work, and the challenges that they face.”

Nearly 99 percent of respondents said the City Commission’s form of government creates a challenging dynamic for PPB and that they city leaders lack an understanding of “everyday policing,” according to the report.

In the study’s open-ended question field, officers remarked:

“Not having the Chief be a politically appointed position subject to the whims of the Mayor’s office.”

“I would argue for city council members to do ride-alongs so they would understand what policing in this city actually looks like.”

“We owe it to the greater community to distance our agency from the ever-changing political winds of city hall and focus on our primary mission which is to prevent/solve crime and the fear of crime in Portland. Just like I wouldn’t want city hall telling an oncologist how best to treat cancer, we should resist city hall directing the Police Chief and PPB on how best to address crime and public safety in the city”

Other officers commented on the relationship between the commission and the bureau, specifically that the Mayor’s Office did not adequately support officers in the past two years.

“City leaders, elected officials, and community need to know officers feel betrayed by them over the past 18-24 months. Although it is dangerous to do, I would publicly have that discussion – this is partly why retention has become such an issue for this agency,” one officer wrote.

When asked about policy-community relationships, answers from officers suggested they “may feel a lower sense of legitimacy in their community.”

“Given the narrative and climate of the past two years that we have already discussed, it came as no surprise that Bureau personnel reported that they felt less respect and compliance from their community than they did two years ago,” according to the report.

Polling data from the study revealed that more than 50 percent of officers “strongly agree” and nearly 29 percent “agree” that “community members are less likely to treat a Bureau officer with respect than they were a year or two ago.” Roughly 10 percent disagree and 1.5 percent strongly disagree. More than 80 percent of officers said community members are less likely to comply with instructions from PPB officers than a year or two ago. 

“With this loss of legitimacy (or, even, power), comes a loss of morale; their desire to engage with the community is lost, too,” the study surmised.

The study’s authors said the “exodus of officers from Portland” within the past year has been “notable,” even in the context of a greater national trend following George Floyd protests in 2020.

The authors of the study said results suggest a “the exodus of officers from Portland” will continue. The study found

The vacancies left from those departures exacerbate Portland’s downward staffing trend over the past 10 or more years, when the number of authorized positions did not keep pace with the City’s population growth, even before the City cut 75 positions in 2020. And, as we discussed earlier, our survey results suggest this trend will continue as officers expressed their desire to leave PPB.

According to the report, a “small yet notable percentage” — 15 percent of 276 respondents — said they plan on leaving PPB within the next year. Of that 15 percent, two percent said they would retire, and 62 percent said they would seek a lateral transfer to another agency or a career change altogether.

“This attrition rate is higher than the 2020-21 national average as reported by the Police Executive Research Forum; the PERF study found that the average national resignation rate was 4.91 per 100 officers (or 4.91 percent) and the national average retirement rate was 4.14 percent,” the study states.

The study concluded by offering 28 recommendations for the city to adopt in order to change the culture at PPB. Most of the recommendation have to do with addressing “racism” and potential “extremism” of recruits, but some talk about community outreach and city/bureau collaboration.

In a statement to Portland Mercury, Wheeler said the report is an “insightful tool.”

“In our initial evaluation of this report, Police Chief Lovell and I are both in agreement with the recommendations,” Wheeler said. “Many of these recommendations are in line with my plan to refocus and reform the bureau, and have already been put in motion.”

City Commissioner Mingus Mapps said the study points to a lack of communication and trust between the bureau and the city.

“If we want to accomplish meaningful reform, we will need to do it with, not to, our police bureau,” Mapps told Mercury.

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