Only 3 of 61 applicants pass background checks for new Portland public safety specialist jobs
While the Portland Police Bureau struggles to recruit officers to fill dozens of vacancies, its effort to hire new civilian public safety specialists to respond to low-level calls also has hit a big snag.
Of more than 100 applicants, the bureau did background checks on 61 prospective candidates -- and only three passed, Assistant Chief Chris Davis reported to the City Council this week.
Of the three, one person took a job elsewhere, leaving only two viable candidates.
Why are applicants failing Portland police background checks?
The two biggest factors: past drug use and dishonesty uncovered in the investigations, Davis told the council.
Anyone who wants to be a Portland cop must not have used marijuana within the prior year. For non-sworn applicants, they must not have used marijuana within the prior four months.
“I think I just discovered where our problem is everybody,’’ Commissioner Chloe Eudaly said, drawing chuckles during a police budget work session.
Davis said it’s not just marijuana use, but other drug use that’s eliminating both the specialist and police applicants during their background checks, and it’s not Portland’s problem alone but common among police departments nationwide.
Because marijuana use is still a federal crime, the bureau can’t legally transfer a gun to a “drug user." With guidance from the City Attorney’s office, the bureau interpreted “drug user’’ as meaning someone who had used drugs in the year before. Because the specialists won’t carry guns and are not sworn officers, the limit was lowered for those applicants, he said.
The bureau won’t start the six-week training of public safety specialists until it has at least six people on board, Davis said. The city gave the bureau the green-light in December to hire 12 new civilian employees, who would be armed with pepper spray, to help relieve patrol officers by responding to nonemergency calls that don’t require police authority.
Police recruiting in general is at a critical stage, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw said. In February and March, the bureau lost 44 people due to retirements, leaving 120 sworn officer vacancies and another 39 non-sworn support staff vacancies.
The Oregonian/OregonLive previously reported that new hires are washing out of the bureau at double the rate as in the past. And the bureau is losing candidates to other police agencies hiring in Oregon and nationally.
“Working here in Portland is unique,’’ Outlaw told City Council members Tuesday. “We deal with demonstrations, protests, crowd management. We catch a lot of headlines.’’
Many applicants, frankly, would rather go for more money elsewhere “and less scrutiny,’’ the chief said.
“The climate here in the city is a lot different,’’ which agencies across the country are recognizing, Outlaw said.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty pressed the chief to be creative and consider reducing the number of command staff or restricting officers’ secondary private jobs.
Outlaw said there might be a way “to flatten’’ the police hierarchy but the bureau needs to maintain a certain “span of control’’ and “accountability,’’ as sought by the U.S. Department of Justice in its settlement agreement with the city after finding a pattern of excessive police force against people with mental illness. Outlaw said she believes some more positions could be made into civilian positions.