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Portland is running out of cops – in Seattle, I can’t avoid them says Christopher Sandford

Blog | By Christopher Sandford | Sep 27, 2023

Stranded by bad weather the other day in Portland, Oregon, I took a walk. The town still prides itself on its 1880s converted sawmills-and-saloons ambience. But, surveying central Portland from a nearby hilltop, I was struck more by the similarity to Dunkirk in 1940.

Several hundred homeless residents, looking like the remnants of a defeated army, were hunched together around braziers or lying in rows of cots on the pavement. No one in Portland bothers about the remaining laws against public drug use or befouling the streets.

The much-shrunken, demoralised police department, its budget slashed in the wake of the George Floyd riots of 2020, currently has just 749 officers, its lowest total since 1980. The city has added 175,000 new residents in the same period.

Just outside this toxic bubble, there’s the ‘real’ Oregon, represented by a long chain of bucolic hamlets inhabited by friendly, well-dressed men and women. It’s a world essentially unchanged since the days of JFK in the White House and Dean Martin slurring his way through That’s Amore on the radiogram.

It’s as though the whole area has somehow managed to slip through a crack in the space-time continuum; to lie not so much indifferent, as oblivious to the march of progress.

You see long rows of neat, clapboard houses, many with a US flag fluttering out front, and spruce little towns with names like Rockaway Beach, Seaside and Tilamook. After the experience of nighttime Portland, it’s like going to bed in a Hieronymus Bosch painting and waking up in one by Constable.

Should you have an emergency of some kind in rural Oregon, you can expect a swift response. In the metropolis of Baker City, with 10,000 residents, the police promise to be at your door within seven minutes. Over in Yamhill, in the heart of Oregon’s wine country, the local sheriff simply gets on his bike to investigate the odd Saturday night complaint about someone overdoing the Bacchic rites.

So, nowadays, it’s a lottery what might happen when an American householder summons the law.

In downtown Portland, the average response time to a 911 (or 999 equivalent) call ranges between 45-90 minutes. In New Orleans, officers take two and a half hours to attend a crime. That’s long enough for the perpetrator to take in dinner and a show in the French Quarter on his way out of town.

Over in Austin, Texas, meanwhile, a retired police officer named Robert Gross recently complained that he’d rung his former colleagues on the force ‘four or five times’ to report a dead body lying in his back garden. It eventually took them two days to respond.

‘I was surprised, but not shocked,’ Gross added of his experience of dialling 911. ‘It’s a shambles.’

Where I live in Seattle, 100 miles north of Portland, it’s all a question of priorities when it comes to an emergency response. One day last summer, trying to report a car break-in, I spent 40 minutes on hold, alternately listening to canned Mantovani music and a recorded announcement assuring me how vital my call.

The ‘detective’ who arrived on the scene 24 hours later displayed all the befuddled style of Lt. Columbo, without any of that great sleuth’s forensic skill.

Set against this, the Seattle police chief has urged ‘anyone suffering or witnessing any form of racial harassment’ to call 911, and promises the ‘fastest possible response ... Even if you’re not sure a hate crime is involved, call us immediately. We are here to help.’

More recently, I happened to pick up the phone to ring a publisher’s office in London to ask about the progress of a book I’d sent them.

Five minutes after I hung up, there was a thunderous knock at the front door. Two extremely large Seattle policemen walked in, an impressive variety of guns and other hardware on their hips, and demanded to know why I had just rung the nation’s designated emergency hotline.

It took some time for the penny to drop. The publisher’s number included the critical digits 911. Merely by dialling it, I’d triggered a police computer somewhere into dispatching a squad car to my home.

I felt like asking the officers why they thought an innocuous phone call to an office 5,000 miles away might take precedence over one reporting a burglary. But it was neither the time nor the place, I decided.

The men didn’t look like the sort of people who debate the vagaries of British STD codes, let alone the finer points of book production. So they thoroughly searched the premises. I thanked them for their time and watched them drive off to their next appointment.

Next time my car is broken into, I’ll call my publisher.

Christopher Sandford is author of Keith Richards: Satisfaction. Brought up in Britain, he now lives in Seattle