Downtown's hired guns

Police officer or security guard? In Portland you have to get pretty close to tell.
Police officer or security guard? In Portland you have to get pretty close to tell.

Murmuring among Portland bloggers and homeless advocates is rising in volume as questions about private security guards in the city's downtown get more media attention: Last August, a blogger on Metroblogging Portland wondered what was up with the uniformed non-cops. A few minor spelling corrections made for clarity here: Every day on MAX in Old Town, I see these guys get on all decked out in a Police uniform, but they aren't Police. They are "Portland Patrol." Who is this and are they official? I ask because the carry guns and wear the same color as Portland Police. Is this a private security company? Do they have the same abilities as a cop? I know certain private security guards can carry weapons, but I doubt they wander the city keeping things secure. Help me out. Street Roots, Portland's twice-monthly newspaper advocating for those living in poverty and often without homes, answered the question last month in an article by staffer Joanne Zuhl: In the era of public-private partnerships, some are more private than public. Which isn't so much of a concern unless the situation involves 30 private security officers, most of them armed, who are funded by the city, enforcing public policy, but contracted with a private business association. The guards, as Street Roots and others have reported, are hired under a $620,000 city contract with the Portland Business Alliance, who then contracts with Portland Patrol Services Inc., a private company. The security guards are intended to keep loiterers moving in retail districts, shoo away smokers and bar disorderly types from parks and other forbidden spots, while keeping an eye out for more serious illegal doings. The Portland Mercury (which has written several times on the topic) and KGW-TV joined the latest chorus of worried voices, pushing the story further. In the Mercury's feature, headlined, "Trust me, I'm a Rent-A-Cop," reporter Matt Davis notes that Portland Patrol would not confirm the number of employees who carry firearms, which had been reported as 17 out of 30 in some published accounts: PPI has refused to confirm these numbers with the Mercury, let alone explain under what circumstances a PPI officer might be allowed to pull their gun. No one has been shot yet, and it may never happen – PPI officers are charged with solving "order maintenance problems" using the lowest possible impact, and if situations have the potential to escalate, they are supposed to call the real police. But if this is the case, why are PPI's officers allowed to carry guns? As reporters have noted, the public-review process in place for Portland Police – the Independent Police Review and Citizens Review Commission – does not cover private security companies. City Commissioner Eric Sten has said he wants the guards to be subject to better scrutiny. "They're out on the streets essentially enforcing policies and laws," Sten told Street Roots. "With any group that has essentially police authorities, there needs to be checks and balances and oversight." (Just so you know: This isn't the first time Sten and business groups have bumped up against each other on downtown issues. Last year, Sten criticized how Portland Business Alliance funds were being spent by an affiliate group that manages downtown security, cleaning, and other projects supported by business taxes. They accused him of anti-biz grandstanding during an election season.) Several citizen-rights groups have been weighing in, as well, raising questions about the training provided to these private officers. Street Roots staff are staying on this issue like glue, arguing that the private patrol officers target vulnerable street populations. The May 18 edition of the newspaper, which is sold by street vendors throughout Portland, has another front-page story tracking its ongoing efforts to get records from the company and the city that outline guard training and policies. An unsigned editorial appears in the same issue, chastising the city and the Portland Business Alliance for not jumping in to create what the editorialist calls "a complaint system that is transparent" for incidents in which citations or behavior by Portland Patrol are questioned. (As of this writing, the story is not yet posted on, but should appear soon.) The editorial wonders, "are officers directed to target people for the way they dress, because they are poor and/or homeless, sleeping and/or camping, minorities, political activists?" A guest column in the Oregonian earlier this month by Israel Bayer, Street Roots director and vice chairman of the North American Street Newspaper Association, used the city's review (and subsequent passage) of a loitering ordinance to raise the private-guard issue, while damning with faint praise the existing police-review mechanism: As a private entity, Portland Patrol is not under the authority of the Independent Police Review Division or the Citizen Review Committee, which review complaints from citizens against police officers. It should be. While the two police review boards are badly in need of reform, they provide a transparent process that allows law enforcement issues to become part of our public debate. We don't have that same transparent process with Portland Patrol. The questions raised about private policing are being so clearly and persistently aired that change, or at least some visible public discussion involving all the players, is inevitable. The city's dogged smaller newspapers deserve credit for that. What hasn't surfaced on local blogs or op-eds is much support for the strengths of downtown Portland – a busy retail core presently defying the all-mall culture encircling this city – along with just about every other city in the country. Even with the heart of the shopping district looking like Beirut due to the tear-up for an ambitious public-transit upgrade, plenty of people are still parking, walking, shopping in Portland. When new shows open on downtown theater stages, the streets are clogged with minivans from the 'burbs; weekend nights have their own hot-club culture. Downtown business folks deserve credit here. Or, maybe, this isn't all so very complicated. Let's just start with some different-colored duds for the private guards. (Hello, Columbia Sportswear? You know all those cargo khakis that didn't sell?) And a citizen board with reps from Street Roots board, police department, and the Portland Business Alliance to consider complaints or questions about private guard services. Oh, yes, and let's leave the guns at home, unless you're a Portland police officer, OK?


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