Sunday, September 26, 2021

Portland suffers - is a great city on the decline?

Portland, Oregon. Much of it is still a beautiful city

by Gregory Saville

This city was once one of my favorites. Even today, there are still great, and well-used, neighborhood parks. Nature here is spectacular with nearby rivers, lush forests, and a Pacific Ocean coast an hour or so drive. Yet, all is not well in this once spectacular city.

Portland, Oregon is applauded in urban planning for its efficient public transit, beautiful architecture, and a famous urban growth boundary that preserved farms and forests alike.

Portland was a model for America and here on SafeGrowth we have posted blogs on neighborhood innovations that show how neighborhood planning can work, such as the Intersection Repair program.

Sadly, no more. I spent a week there recently co-teaching SafeGrowth and discovered something is catastrophically wrong in Portland. I truly hope it does not portend the decline of that great city. I hope it is not a bellwether for other cities.

Homeless encampments. Like other cities, Portland struggles 


As in all major cities in the U.S., crime, especially homicide, is increasing. Homicides have been increasing yearly in Portland for 5 years (the police defunding movement cannot claim full responsibility). 

Homelessness has never been worse. Downtown streets are lined with boarded-up buildings, vacant properties, and addicts on seemingly every corner. It looks like the beginning of the worst years in Detroit! 

In spite of innovations in housing the homeless, the problem grows

How did this happen? For starters, consider 100 straight days of protests and riots in 2020. Then add racial unrest and anti-police protests. Throw in COVID shutdowns and economic strife and a persistent inability to respond effectively to street homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. This is a perfect storm for urban decline.  


Our work there has just begun and the Portlanders engaged in the SafeGrowth crime prevention work are impressive and dedicated to making things better. I’m curious to see how much help they get from other organizations. They have plenty of conceptual crime prevention tools and a system for tackling the big issues. But they are just getting started and there is much work to do.

In the meantime, there are so many critical questions to consider: How to respond to mental illness? How to tame the rash of shootings? How to provide humane and effective services to the homeless? How to reclaim downtown Portland for all Portlanders?

A transformed downtown

Vacant stores, companies leaving downtown


One of those critical questions involves the Portland Police. 

I have worked for three decades to reform the police academy curriculum toward the 21st Century. I have co-written books on the deficiencies in police training, patrol, hiring, and supervision. I have co-written, with my colleague Gerard Cleveland, OpEds in the Denver Post newspaper describing what should be done.

As Jane Jacobs said, as necessary as police are, they cannot control crime without the intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary social controls among people themselves (in other words, SafeGrowth). But her injunction deliberately attaches the phrase "the police - as necessary as they are." So what is happening to the necessary role of police in Portland?


Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell says his force now has less than 40 officers patrolling the streets each night and, according to CNN "he doesn't think that is nearly enough to deal with the increased violence. During one weekend, his department had over 1,200 calls for help.”

Is he right, I wondered? As a former police planner, I slipped back into my habit of crunching the numbers: 

  • 1,200 calls divided by 48 hours = 25 calls an hour. 
  • Only 40 officers patrolling the entire city means 40 officers – 25 calls = 15 officers available each hour 

Of course, that only works if Portland police use single-officer patrols and not two-officer patrols (I have no clue which they use). Further, many of those 25 calls require two officers to attend (car crashes with injuries, bar fights, etc). What does that do to the bottom line? 

  • If 25% of those 25 calls require a two-officer response (I am being cautious - it’s probably much higher) 
  • Then 25 calls per hour = 30 officers tied up in calls every hour 
  • Therefore, 40 officers – 30 officers = 10 officers remaining for calls 
What do we know about the geography of policing in Portland?
  • Portland is a city of 660,000 residents and 145 square miles. 
  • Since I have no idea how their department structures patrol zones, let's estimate. 145 / 10 = 14.5 
There are maps showing better ways forward - Our book You In Blue outlined some 6 years ago


Admittedly, this back-of-the-envelope calculation is probably too conservative. But it is a best-case result and to leaders and citizens alike, it should pose an alarming question: Is there really only 1 officer available for every 14.5 square miles in Portland during busy weekends?

If so, no wonder the Portlanders I spoke to complained about a complete absence of police. After all, if Portland cops are not already on a call, then they are spread so thin it is unlikely the dispatch supervisor can afford to send them to anything but the most serious offenses.

Do Portland residents no longer have a police department able to do its job! If so, then who is responding to the drug dealing, street assaults, robberies, sexual crimes, and so forth? 

Is this call-ratio/quality-of-police response all that matters? No. But it is enough to get started.


SafeGrowth can make a major impact on community engagement. And there are many reasons to reform the police. But stripping down your emergency response to almost zero? Does that really make sense? What are the alternative emergency response options? I know of attempts to create small special response units. I know the recent trend is to pair officers with social workers in cars. 

But, let’s be frank. These are piecemeal answers. There are better ways to solve problems, better training methods, better leadership styles, and better ways to govern police.

Today Portland suffers. The residents, minority groups, the disenfranchised, and the police themselves, deserve better! 

2 Replies so far - Add your comment

mark said...

Hi Greg,

Great article, it was fascinating to follow your observations of Portland, and your thoughts on the dynamics playing out. I think it should also be noted that economic disparity across the country, exacerbated by Covid-19 impacts, is driving people to the more temperate, western edge of the USA. So, while gentrification and the associated housing crisis is clearly contributing to Portland's challenges, the general background of disparity and crisis is driving even more people with challenges away from the more harsh conditions of the interior of the continent. People are piling up in the available margins, up and down the west coast. My my part, I feel that our current political leadership, locally, is not up to the challenge. Not this mayor, who is not connected, creative, or courageous enough to deal with the huge compounding issues of our time.

Anyway, thanks for your vision and leadership!
Mark Lakeman

GSaville said...

Thanks for the kudos Mark, and your insights into the crisis underway in Portland. It really was a shock to see the extent of the decline. I wonder what the temperature and migration thesis looks, especially in relation to homelessness, if we were to look at western cities like San Diego or warm cities like Houston, Austin, or Phoenix? I posted a blog a few years ago regarding homelessness in Seattle and crunched the numbers only to discover the per capital rate of homelessness was actually higher in Oklahoma City than Seattle - which puts the political explanation to rest that suggests left leaning cities are worse.

Thanks again Mark for the comments...and for all your tremendously innovative work there to make life livable and fun.