Portlanders Urge City Council to Slash Police Budget

Thousands march through downtown Portland, Oregon, on Monday, July 20, in a protest against police brutality. (Courthouse News photo/Karina Brown)

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) – Speakers at a town hall meeting asked Portland’s city council to dramatically reduce the funding of city police and instead redirect that money to community services shown to reduce crime – in addition to police budget cuts last June that President Donald Trump used to label the city an “anarchist jurisdiction.”

Inspired by calls for defunding police from thousands of protesters nightly in the streets after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Portland’s city council voted in June to reduce the Portland Police Bureau budget by $15 million, in addition to across-the-board cuts of 5.6 percent necessary to keep up with projected shortfalls due to Covid-19.

The police budget currently hovers at $242 million. Amid historic revenue gaps, the Portland city council is preparing for its annual fall budget adjustment. Under normal circumstances, the maneuver is meant for small tweaks to get keep the city solvent until spring, when major changes are made. But this year, nothing is normal.

Protesters have remained in Portland’s streets every night since Floyd’s killing, with a brief hiatus due to choking wildfire smoke so thick it exceeded the uppermost measurement of toxic particulate matter on the government’s Air Quality Index. And President Donald Trump has seized on the protests, and cuts already made to the police budget, to declare Portland an “anarchist jurisdiction” undeserving of federal funding.

According to a memo released by the U.S. Department of Justice, the federal government will declare municipalities “anarchist” if they: “disempower or defund police departments, unreasonably refuse to accept offers of law enforcement assistance from the federal government, and any other related factors the attorney general deems appropriate.”

And the memo states that Portland, Seattle and New York City meet those criteria.

U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) rejected the announcement as an illegal attempt to quell a historic civil rights movement.

“Bill Barr and other Trump cronies at DOJ are continuing their tyrannical campaign to prevent Americans from protesting by threatening to pull federal funds from Portland,” Blumenauer said on Twitter. “Make no mistake: We won’t be intimidated by unconstitutional threats or illegal government overreach.”

None of the Portlanders who spoke at a town hall meeting held online Tuesday night sounded intimidated. Instead, an overwhelming majority wanted the same thing: a substantial reduction in police funding.

Timur Ender said police funding should be repurposed to address the root causes of crime, “like poverty, hunger and income inequality.”

“We need to look at violence from a public health lens,” Ender said. “I reject the notion that taking funding from police budgets to address an upstream, public health approach is anti-police. Because the more shootings that are prevented through smart public policy, the safer everyone is – including police.”

Local attorney Alan Kessler said the city is facing numerous lawsuits over police violence at protests, and environmental damage caused by the tear gas that settles in the streets before running into the sewer system and from there into the Willamette River.

“We are being poisoned by our police and by our mayor,” Kessler said. “Chemical weapons, expired munitions, chemicals banned in war, chemicals known to cause cancer – we’re spreading them all over our city and letting them wash into our water.”

Silas Covert-Keefe, who works for housing authority Home Forward, said his workdays are filled talking to people who don’t have enough money for food or utility bills.

“It’s difficult to know that these people, who are trying very hard just to survive, could really be thriving if we weren’t spending so much money on police,” Covert-Keefe said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Seattle’s city council voted to override vetoes from Mayor Jenny Durkan that nixed the council’s cuts to the police budget. The council’s overrides will reinstate cuts of 100 police jobs, end funding for a police team dedicated to sweeping homeless encampments and reduce the salaries of police commanders.

And Tuesday night, two of Portland’s five voting members signaled potential willingness to cut further into police coffers during next month’s budget adjustment.

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly noted that public comments on Tuesday night mirrored last spring’s “massive public outreach,” when the city heard over 10% of the city said in emails and public comments that they wanted reductions to the police budget.

“That is record-breaking,” Eudaly said. “That is unlikely to have ever happened in the history of city council. Not to mention thousands of people coming out for weeks on end to support the Black Lives Matter movement. So there is definitely huge support in the community.”

And Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who worked for decades to increase police accountability before she took office in January 2019, acknowledged that the fall adjustment was not normally a time when city council made major changes to the budget.

“But what I’ve been seeing on the streets for the last 100 plus days is people want bold, brave leadership that actually points us in the right direction on what we are going to build coming out of this pandemic,” Hardesty said. “And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to wait until next year to start to actually have an impact on what it is the people are telling us they want.”

The council will hold another town hall meeting on the fall budget monitoring process on Oct. 6, followed by a city council work session Oct. 20. The council’s vote is scheduled for Oct. 28.

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