PORTLAND, Ore. (KGW) — Portland police are taking a new approach in response to a rise in drug overdoses and unsheltered homelessness downtown. Teams of about four officers have now started patrolling the area on foot.
Last month, Portland Mayor and Police Commissioner Ted Wheeler ordered the Portland Police Bureau to do this type of patrolling around Southwest 4th and Washington after a slew of overdoses and frequent drug deals there. Now, officers are expanding beyond the downtown core.
“It’s about trying to help people, like we always do, however we can,” said Sgt. Kyle Hefley. He said he sees the importance of meeting the city’s most vulnerable where they are.
“I’ve been seeing this for a couple of days,” a woman named Kylie said of the patrols. She’s been homeless in Portland since she was 14.
For her, seeing the police only means one thing.
“Like we’re all going to get arrested because a lot of people who are living on the streets obviously are dealing with opioid problems, methamphetamine problems, and stuff like that and the police don’t necessarily have that good of a reputation,” she said.
Hefley’s team started Tuesday afternoon’s walking patrol at the epicenter, Southwest 4th and Washington.
“I would say this side of downtown into Old Town is probably the highest concentration of drug use that we get,” he said.
Hefley and his team respond to about 10 overdoses a day, he said.
“If we can stay ahead of and just, try to help people out most of the time … on the OD’s, it’s not people taking something that’s trying to kill them, they’re taking something that they don’t know what it is,” Hefley said.
Fentanyl is the biggest concern for police. They’re trying to catch people using and selling the drug, to the extent that they’re able. But they’re also worried that a new flesh-eating drug called “tranq” — a mix of fentanyl and horse tranquilizer — will soon be making its rounds on Portland’s streets, potentially worsening the drug crisis.
After circling the block, the officers ran into a group of homeless people on the corner of Southwest 5th and Oak.
“Portland is the best place to be homeless,” one woman told Hefley. “Because you guys are so nice.”
As it turns out, that woman was a diversion to a possible drug deal down the street, Hefley said.
“Typically, the groups that are using and selling drugs — they’ll see us, they’ll scatter, or they’ll have one person come up and talk to us as a distraction and they’ll take off and go elsewhere. But we’ll see as we get up here, they usually recongregate within five minutes or so,” he said.
It had been an unusually quiet start to their shift, but that didn’t last long. As the officers tried to look up the status of a suspicious vehicle with styrofoam plates and weapons inside, a commotion happened just a block away.
A Portland bike officer was writing up a ticket for a driver believed to be smoking fentanyl behind the wheel when the driver tried to escape, ran two red lights and flipped the car after crashing into two other vehicles. The car came to a rest upside-down near the intersection of Southwest 4th and Washington.
“This is pretty frequent, this is all the time,” said Portland Bike Squad officer Whitney Anderson. “Not a crash of this level — obviously this is pretty horrible — but as far as stopping people for fentanyl use … between the four bike officers, let’s see, it’s not even 2 o’clock (and) we’ve probably written 40 citations today for open-air drug use.”
Anderson said that, per Measure 110, they give out citations for people smoking fentanyl alongside a card that includes a number for seeking drug treatment. Rarely does anyone ever pick up the phone to make that call, she said.
“Generally, people are like, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ Quite a few times people throw the citation away right in front of us … we issue them and it seems like they don’t go anywhere, so it feels a bit helpless sometimes,” Anderson said.
Hefley’s team moved on. They recognized an 18-year-old known for dealing drugs downtown and stopped him after he handed his bag off to a man in a wheelchair and kept walking.
“The reason we’re stopping you is people are selling drugs down here, people are dying, a lot of people around your age,” Hefley said to the young man.
The police couldn’t open the young man’s bag without his permission, which took about 30 minutes to get. Inside was a .22 caliber handgun with 10 rounds and a bag of marijuana. The 18-year-old said he carries the gun for protection after getting stabbed three times last week.
“Being out here and being present, and having the ability to talk to people and do like we did today and take a gun off the street is beneficial to everybody downtown,” said Lt. Lacey Sparling.
Hefley’s team considers it their ongoing mission to save lives one step at a time.
“They’re used to seeing us driving by in cars and busy going from call to call to call, but (it helps) when we can walk up and have a conversation with somebody and let them know, ‘Hey, we’re out here trying to help people,'” Hefley said.
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