Eugene Weekly : News : 2.4.10


Downtown Shakedown
Cops demand more protection money
By Alan Pittman

Eugene Police Chief Pete Kerns has 195 officers at his command but won’t put more than two of them downtown unless you give him more money.

Kerns argued that his department’s existing $42 million budget couldn’t afford to put any more officers downtown. “We don’t have enough officers,” he told Eugene Weekly

Kerns argued that he couldn’t redeploy officers from suburban areas because that would reduce response times. But EPD statistics show EPD officers very rarely have to respond to serious crimes in much of suburban Eugene.

Kerns also did not explain how Eugene taxpayers spend $46 million on public safety but get only 195 officers and only two downtown for their money. Eugene spends about a third more per officer on policing than Salem, but the Eugene City Council has never ordered an independent performance audit of the EPD. Eugene has about the same number of police officers per capita as Salem and more officers per capita than Springfield.

Eugene City Manager Jon Ruiz, who is supposedly Kerns’ boss and in charge of city budget efficiency, refused to respond to a question about why the city didn’t simply redeploy more of its existing resources to downtown safety. “You should probably ask Pete, because I’m not the expert.”

Kerns told the Eugene City Council last week that he wouldn’t deploy more officers downtown unless he got a budget increase of $1.3 million a year for eight additional officers. Kerns said he also wanted 10 jail beds at an additional cost of $420,000 a year. 

Even if Kerns gets the money, it’s unclear whether he will in fact continue to spend it on helping downtown. 

Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy said Kerns should feel free to later redeploy the newly funded officers and jail beds elsewhere if he wants to. “I would want you to have the flexibility for you to do what you think is necessary.”

It doesn’t appear that the EPD has much real interest in focusing on downtown. Up until recently, the department had dedicated only one officer to the area. The police are also pursuing plans to move their police headquarters out of downtown to a site north of the river.  

Although the cops don’t appear much interested in downtown, they have long had a keen interest in boosting their budget. 

Kerns has argued that the city needs twice as many police officers to address decades of “severe” understaffing. 

But such dire public safety talk conflicts with reality in Eugene. Ninety-six percent of Eugene residents reported feeling “very” or “somewhat” safe walking alone in their neighborhood after dark, according to a recent city survey. 

Eugene citizens appear to know what they’re talking about. Despite a decade of the EPD arguing that it is drastically understaffed, the violent crime rate has fallen 46 percent in Eugene and the property crime rate has fallen 30 percent since 1997, according to FBI data. The city ranks as one of the safest in the nation, according to the FBI.

The EPD appears to have enough officers that it has been able to deploy a heavy response to nonviolent protests and focus on petty crimes that are largely ignored in other cities. Eugene police reported arresting 1,002 people in 2008 for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

It’s also unclear exactly what the crime problem is in downtown Eugene. Since 2006, violent crime is flat downtown while property crime has decreased significantly, according to EPD data. 

“The problems that are the greatest downtown aren’t violent crime,” Kerns admitted at a City Club talk last week. “It’s not property crime,” he said. “It’s behavior crime.”

That “behavior” crime appears to be about criminalizing the homeless downtown who must survive without beds or bathrooms. But there are cheaper, more humane ways to house the homeless than spending $150,000 per cop plus $42,000 per jail bed. An apartment in Eugene costs less than $5,000 a year.

“Is it [downtown crime] a perception issue or is it a reality issue,” city Planning and Development Director Susan Muir asked at City Club, before stating that the city wants to address both. 

Muir said one solution is getting more people downtown so the street people don’t stick out so much. But it’s unclear how hyping crime will attract more people downtown.

At the City Club an elderly woman stood up to tell the chief and fellow citizens to come to Eugene’s safe downtown. On her many walks in the area, “I have yet to be threatened or attacked,” she said. “I’ve not once had anyone give me a hard time.” She added, “I feel that the issue of fear downtown is exacerbated by us.”







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