By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND — Portland's Central Precinct is about to send a new team of police officers out to focus on keeping order on the streets of the city's downtown, inner east side and Hawthorne district.
Starting April 1, the team of nine officers and one sergeant will have the choice to walk, bike, ride ATVs or patrol in cars to focus on quality-of-life problems, such as public urination, open-air drug deals, public consumption of alcohol or threatening behavior.
Precinct Cmdr. Bob Day called it a "return to the basics" approach to policing by providing an increased officer presence in locations that have attracted chronic street-level crime.
"They're going to walk out of the building and talk to people," Day said Tuesday. "We're putting more officers out there with the idea of engaging more of the community. This is not targeted at a particular group of folks."
The officers will largely be free of responding to 911 calls unless they're needed or happen to be the closest to a particular call, said Central Precinct acting Capt. Matt Wagenknecht.
The new team is gearing up before summer arrives and will operate through Nov. 1.
Day said he'll seek overtime to cover the team's work. Laurie Abraham of the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office said her office is seeking another prosecutor aimed at handling misdemeanor offenses for the next fiscal year, starting July 1.
Portland police took extra measures this weekend to restrict overnight camping downtown. The near-fatal stabbing of a 39-year-old transient man beneath the Burnside Bridge on Friday prompted Portland police to close off a sidewalk that runs beneath the bridge that had turned into a makeshift campground.
"This was the second cutting/stabbing we had down there," Day said. "We believe it was enough of a public safety concern that we needed to secure the sidewalk. ... Things had reached a tipping point when a person is nearly killed. I'm not intending to back off of this strategy."
Police said Bryce Carlton Powers, 39, was stabbed in the back during a fight with other homeless men beneath the bridge and stumbled into traffic on Naito Parkway, where he collapsed. The initial call to police came out mistakenly as a hit-and-run accident, police said.
Hugh Donnelly, director of administration and facilities at the nonprofit Mercy Corps office beside the Burnside Bridge, said he was frustrated that it took a stabbing to get police to clear the property of campers. If the area had been cleared earlier, "we might not have had this stabbing," he said.
Mercy Corps has had to hire security to patrol the outside of its building. "It's frustrating for the local property owners," he said.
Police are working with social service agencies to find shelters and other alternative places for homeless people to sleep. Day said he's not sure how long the police can keep the location cordoned off and prohibit overnight camping. He said he'll be working with the city's Bureau of Transportation to come up with a longer-term solution.
Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots, said he doesn't know the details of Central Precinct's new team, but said he'd welcome more officers walking the streets.
"We have long welcomed the idea of more police officers on walking beats to create an environment where they're not only responding to violent crimes, but also looking out for our people as well," Bayer said. "What we don't want to see happen is police just targeting homeless people for petty crimes."
Central Precinct's new team of officers isn't related to the bureau's Chronic Offender Pilot Project, which is expected to wrap up by April 1, said Chuck Sparks, a Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney. While that project was intended to apply to people littering, urinating in public or drinking alcohol from open containers, it was misapplied to people who violated the city's sidewalk ordinance.
Recently, six new Portland police officers completed probation and are being assigned to Central Precinct's afternoon patrol shift.
Day, who acknowledged he's not a fan of specialized policing teams, said he hopes the rest of the precinct's patrol officers will also spend more time getting to know the people who live and work in their districts, in between responding to emergency calls.
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