PORTLAND, Ore. – After mass resignations and poor morale following the 2020 protests, new police recruits are finally flocking to Portland, the police union head says. There’s just one hiccup: a months long training backlog.
“Our hiring has picked up quite a bit,” Portland Police Association President Aaron Schmautz said. “The real issue is that there’s this huge backlog at [the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training], so every time we hire people, it’s months before they even start the academy.”
The officer shortage has been blamed for unprecedented slow 911 response times. High-priority calls now wait about 20 minutes on average for a response, according to Portland Police Bureau data. Before 2020, that number was closer to 8 minutes.
“Call times in Portland are at an all-time high,” Schmautz said. “That’s just unconscionable. If you’re having an emergency, you need someone there now.”
A Portland doctor knocked unconscious in a random attack in July waited 20 minutes for police to come before she gave up and went home. Last fall, frustrated Portland residents said it felt as if the police “almost disappeared.”
The 2020 George Floyd protests and the defund the police movement spurred a mass exodus from the department. Recently retired officers rebuffed the city’s attempts to rehire them and new applications dwindled.
But the tide appears to be turning and, contrary to popular belief, plenty of people now want to be police officers in Portland, Schmautz told Fox News. Around 1,000 people have applied so far this year, he said, attributing some of that to competitive pay — nearly $80,000 entry salary plus a signing bonus — and more support from city leadership.
“We’ve seen a lot of people go and work other places and then come back to work in Portland,” he said. “Our officers care about our community, and a lot of the people who are becoming police officers here are people that were born and raised here who have a vested interest.”
Now the problem is getting those officers trained.
Every new officer, deputy and trooper from the state’s more than 200 law enforcement agencies must go through basic training at the Oregon Public Safety Academy. The academy also trains corrections officers, parole officers and more, all out of a single facility in the state’s capital.
The police program was designed to accommodate an annual turnover rate of about 10%, DPSST deputy director Dr. Staci Yutzie said. That rate surged after 2020.
“Big agencies across this country really suffered with their turnover rates,” Yutzie said. “Certainly Portland, probably more so than some of our other smaller agencies.”
Now that hiring is increasing beyond pre-2020 levels to make up for the officers lost, the academy can’t keep up.
“We have a law enforcement culture change and it happened in the space of two years,” DPSST director Phil Castle said. “That’s very fast.”
New officers must attend the 16-week training academy within 90 days of being hired, according to state law. The wait to get into the program was recently as long as seven months, but has now improved to four months. The legislature also greenlit DPSST to increase class sizes in November on a trial basis to alleviate the backlog.
“We’re feeling very optimistic about this. This is a huge lift. We’re doing something we’ve never done before,” Yutzie said. “We’re already seeing some improvements in the wait time, and we expect to continue to see that trend.”
Portland’s training requirements — in addition to the state academy — are longer than national and even regional norms. It takes a staggering 18 months to fully train Portland officers, according to the bureau. Even with the backlog improving, there’s a tough road ahead. About 100 out of the city’s 800 sworn police members are currently in training, Schmautz said.
“We were about 1,500 shifts short per month” in the spring, he said. “It’s 15,000 hours of policing.”
There are often dozens of emergency calls waiting in the queue when officers arrive at work. When Schmautz started his career, he said two or three calls were the norm.
“It’s just a crush. It’s really, really emotionally draining, and it’s a lot of work,” he said.
A new report from the Manhattan Institute calls PPB “one of the most understaffed forces in the nation,” ranking 48th out of 50 large cities in its police-to-population ratio. So trimming the training backlog may not solve all the bureau’s problems.
It’s just a crush. It’s really, really emotionally draining
Nationwide, the rate of police officers has generally been 2.2 to 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the FBI. In Portland, that would work out to around 1,450 police employees, Schmautz said. But the bureau is authorized for 881 sworn members and is currently about 70 short.
Boston, Detroit and Memphis have around twice as many officers as Portland while having a similar population size, though Schmautz acknowledged that “doesn’t mean we must have that many police officers to function.” The City of Roses has a much lower crime rate than Memphis, one of the most violent cities in the U.S.
“But you have to look at the things you want to solve, who you want to solve them, and make sure that they’re all working together,” Schmautz said. “If it’s not going to be law enforcement, if we want to have social service workers or other things navigating these relationships, that’s great. But we have to make sure that web is woven.”
Schmautz is optimistic that the situation will improve.
“We just hired 13 police officers last week,” he said on Aug. 31. “That is evidence to me that people are willing to be a part of the conversation.”