PORTLAND, Ore. — Defund the police? City leaders in Portland tried it. A unit in the fire and rescue bureau, one of the first of its kind in a major city, began this year taking some 911 calls about people in crisis, especially those who are homeless.
Instead of police officers with flashing lights and guns, a paramedic and a social worker would drive up offering water, a high-protein snack and, always and especially, conversation, aiming to defuse a situation that could otherwise lead to confrontation and violence. No power to arrest. No coercion.
“Having someone show up and offer you goods rather than run you off is different, and people respond to it — it softens the mood,” said Tremaine Clayton, a burly, tattooed veteran of 20 years at the fire and rescue bureau who helps run the program.
But this spring, just as the project was preparing for a major rollout into more neighborhoods, there was another plot twist: The new policing alternative was itself mostly defunded. The city decided on a go-slow approach, and the promised $4.8 million expansion evaporated.
Violent crime, especially homicide, has spiked in most urban areas during the pandemic, and many police departments are facing new scrutiny about training and bias since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis a year ago.