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A homeless camp along the banks of the Willamette River  in Portland, Oregon.(Photo Courtesy: Portland City Auditor/Independent Police Review)
By R. Dallon Adams | The Skanner News
Published: 25 July 2019

The City Auditor’s Independent Police Review (IPR) conducted a study to understand Portland’s disproportionately high rates of arrests involving people experiencing homelessness. Improved recordkeeping and clearer officer expectations are recommended to more aptly monitor and identify effective solutions to Portland’s homeless crisis.

In recent years, Portland has seen a surge in homelessness. According to Multnomah County's most recent 2017 Joint Office of Homeless Services Point in Time survey, there are more than 4,100 homeless individuals in Portland, representing almost a 10 percent increase in homelessness since 2015. While homeless individuals represent less than three percent of Portland’s population, people experiencing homelessness represent more than half of all arrests in city in 2017, per analysis conducted by The Oregonian.

Inadequate Data, “Mere Conversations” Lost in Documentation

The IPR report stresses the need for increased data quality controls and clearer written guidance related to documenting housing status. Insufficient data and irregularities hinder the bureau’s ability to blueprint effective policing solutions.

“The Police Bureau has no written guidance for report writing or data entry to record a person’s housing status. Officers said they received no verbal guidance either,” reads a portion of the IPR report. “Sometimes a suspect may not want to tell officers where they live. In the past officers wrote “refused,” but they were told not to do that and enter “transient’ instead.” Officers were also told not to use old addresses for those arrested.”

Following an arrest, police officers enter report data into a database known as the Regional Justice Information Network (RegJIN). In its current iteration, this database does not include a field allowing officers to specify the housing status of an arrested person. Similarly, a “field related to mental health” currently exists in the database, however, “officers do not appear to use it,” meaning the bureau is often missing opportunities to provide an additional level of detail to arrest reports.

Officers are not required to enter data or write reports if an interaction does not result in an arrest. Additionally, interactions such as “mere conversations” do not require documentation. At the moment, there is no data related to instances where police officers refer individuals to a homeless shelter or requests a person to vacate a sidewalk. Data representing all interactions with homeless individuals is needed to track and understand overall arrest rates for these encounters.

Policing Homelessness: Unclear Expectations, Gray Areas Abound

Pointing to previous programs – namely the 2016 ‘safe sleeping’ pilot – officers made note of unclear and inconsistent expectations. The report also underscores “broad discretion” when it comes to homeless policing procedures and arrests. Clearer guidance from the Police Bureau and City Council could resolve some of these issues.

“The first step is for the Police Bureau and City Council to discuss and come to agreement about how people experiencing homelessness should be policed. When the police officers are called, their job is to respond and ensure public safety,” city auditor Mary Hull Caballero told The Skanner. “In some instances, such as when a crime has been committed and the victim deserves action, they will make an arrest. At other times, it’s less clear. Officers say they want guidance about how to proceed when several options are available to them, making an arrest being one of them. People feel strongly on all sides of this issue, so direction from Council would help.”

Portland Affordable Housing Forecasts

Decreased access to affordable housing will only increase rates of homelessness across Portland and the region in the years ahead. A 2018 ECONorthwest report forecasts 14 percent median rent increases between 2018 and 2022. If these projected rental spikes occur, the homeless population across the region could swell to more than 8,200 individuals in 2022.

It’s important to note that nearly half of the arrests in the IPR sample were the result of a dispatched call. That said, we asked the City Auditor if the report also engages the public to rethink the role of law enforcement in relation to homelessness.

“That was not our purpose for the review, but it’s a valid conversation for the community to have,” said Hull Caballero.

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