Law enforcement agencies across the country are having difficulty investigating and clearing violent criminal offenses amid rising crime and significant officer shortages.
In Oregon, the Portland Police Bureau has more than 100 vacancies after waves of retirements and resignations over the past few years depleted its ranks. Meanwhile, the city’s murder rate spiked to 207% since 2019.
Last year, Portland recorded 87 homicides — three times its historical average — and is on pace to surpass that number this year. There have also been around 800 shootings in the city so far this year.
Due to the high case load and dwindling work force, solving murders and obtaining justice for victims’ families has become challenging.
To cope with the losses in ranks, the department has had to shift resources from specialized units to patrols. In addition, detectives have had to put older cases on hold after being assigned to specialized homicide squads.
Portland resident Brian Spaulding is still seeking closure for the unsolved murder of his son, who was found shot to death at a home he shared with roommates five years ago. His case has grown cold after the detective assigned to it retired in 2020. The new detective assigned to the case is overwhelmed with more recent cases.
“To us, it’s not a cold case,” Spaulding said. “We’re not dissatisfied with the Police Bureau because I think they’re doing the best they can. They are just overwhelmed. It’s insane.”
Other cities are facing similar struggles.
In Philadelphia, officers assigned to deal with neighborhood issues have been shifted to the city center and hot spots around the city to combat the rise in homicides, which reached record highs last year.
Philadelphia Police spokesperson Eric Gripp told the Associated Press that its department’s struggle to respond to 9-1-1 calls and recruit new officers is part of a nationwide trend.
“We’re getting more calls for service and there are fewer people to answer them,” Gripp said. “This isn’t just an issue in Philadelphia. Departments all over are down and recruitment has been difficult.”
Indeed, the LAPD is down 650 officers compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, and had to make several sacrifices to maintain sufficient patrols to keep the city safe. For example, the department decided to dissolve its animal cruelty unit and downsize its human trafficking, narcotics, guns and homeless outreach teams by 80% in order to make up for vacant positions.
Other cities, like Seattle, are doing everything they can to recruit more officers. The city recently approved a $2 million budget increase for the police department to include hiring bonuses in an effort to attract more candidates.
Other cities, such as Portland, are experimenting with solutions such as replacing patrol officers with unarmed “public support specialists” to respond to vehicle break-ins and bike thefts. In San Diego, California, licensed psychiatric clinicians accompany officers on mental health calls.
“For me, I wonder, what the profession is going to be 20 years from now if we’re having these challenges on a nationwide scale. Are we going to be able to recruit enough people to serve our cities?” Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell asked.
According to data from the Brennan Center for Justice, violent crime is up nationwide, and has increased by 30% since 2020. Experts believe that the pandemic is the main contributing factor behind the homicides.
Lovell said investigations into older unsolved homicides will resume when staffing levels return to normal.
Other cities near Portland have it just as bad, or worse. The Gresham Police Department’s eight officers have their hands full.
“Right now, because of the spike in violent crime, we’re only able to investigate murders, child abuse and sex crimes,” Sergeant Travis Garrison said. “We’re triaging.”