Portland Police Chief Frank Clark, shown here at a press conference last month, says he is concerned about staffing levels in his department. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — Proposed budget cuts, a freeze on filling open positions, and looming retirements have Portland Police Chief Frank Clark concerned about the staffing level at his department and its impact on policing and crime reduction.

City Manager Jon Jennings’ fiscal year 2021 budget for the police department is $17.1 million, down $561,700 from the current budget. The police budget, which represents about 8.5% of the overall municipal spending, reduces the number of sworn officers to 158 – the lowest in 20 years – due to the school board’s elimination of the school resource officer program and, as part of the budget cuts, the loss of a community policing officer. 

The loss of the three positions, Clark said, will “provide obvious gaps in our proactive community policing and problem-solving efforts.”

Meanwhile, six open positions, including two officers and two dispatchers, cannot be filled until January as part of a citywide hiring freeze.

“Coupled with the unknown start date of the next Maine Basic Law Enforcement Training Academy due to COVID limitations, and the impacts of the current national climate, I remain concerned about staffing impacts, internally, in terms of retention, employee time off, morale and wellness and, externally, in terms of provision of community services and crime reduction,” he told The Forecaster.

Not knowing when the academy will reopen for training makes it difficult to plan for existing or anticipated vacancies, he said.

Eight officers have resigned this year, including four since June 1, Clark said. Another 12 officers are eligible for retirement and are weighing their options, he said

A Black Lives Matter protest June 1 in the city grew violent and police were unprepared for the vandalism and attacks on officers, Clark said previously. Police used pepper spray for crowd control and made 23 arrests.

Clark’s staffing concerns come amid calls from the Black Lives Matter movement and the homeless encampments in the city to reallocate some police department funding to resources for mental health and other social services.

The fiscal year 2021 budget, on which the City Council is expected to vote Sept. 21, marks the first time in more than a decade that the allocation to police has gone down. Over the last 11 years, city police expenditures have gone up close to 30%.

Clark said that increase came during a time when money was allocated for a new Portland Regional Communications Center that now provides fire, police and emergency medical services dispatch for Portland, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. It also came at a time when the budget was expanded to include a neighborhood prosecutor, community policing coordinator and  non-traditional positions, such as behavioral health and substance use disorder liaisons.

Councilor Jill Duson said that in the spirit of a community push to reexamine police spending, she wants to have a discussion about whether those positions belong in the police budget or are better suited for the public health and health and human services budgets.

“When I ask people what do you mean when you say ‘defund’ the police, some of the answers that come back is a request that we look at the way we are providing non-police services …. through the police department,” she said.

Councilor Belinda Ray has asked Clark to look into the pros and cons of having behavioral health and substance use disorder positions funded through the police budget.

“Where do these services best live and what are the benefits and challenges of having them where they are, which is in the police force?” she said.

Those discussions are already internally underway. Clark said the department is open to looking at different models and once ideas are firmed up, he intends to bring them to the city manager, as well as the council’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee.

Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said the increase in police budget is in line with increases over the last decade for overall municipal spending. Over the same time period – FY 11 to FY 21 – the expenditures of the city as a whole also rose close to 30%. Jennings said that 10 years ago, the city was still coming out of the Great Recession and as the economy rebounded, so too did city expenditures.

Given that, “the police department expenditure increase doesn’t seem unreasonable to me,” he said.

Regardless of the final budget number of his department or what it looks like in the future, Clark said “we intend to continue our efforts at promoting community policing and improving police training, policies, procedures and programs, all of which will require strong commitment and dedicated resources.”

“The police department’s employees are a dedicated and resilient bunch and we will remain committed to providing the highest level of service, while ensuring officer safety and employee wellness moving forward,” he said.

Comments are not available on this story.