By COLIN STAUB
Having trouble retrieving a towed car, or getting a police report for insurance after a car theft or burglary? There’s a reason. Portland Police Bureau’s Records Division is operating at barely half its budgeted staff level. And the AFSCME Local 189-represented workers who remain face a growing backlog of paperwork and a growing sense of burnout.
The Records Division is responsible for processing all police reports, data entry into police databases, releasing towed vehicles to their owners, and more.
Full staffing for the division would be roughly 50 records specialists. This year’s budget authorizes 49 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions. But currently, the division has just 29.5 FTE filled, and with several employees out on medical leave, real staffing is closer to 26.5, says police records training coordinator Mike Bouyear, chair of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) chapter of AFSCME Local 189.
In other words, the Records Division is operating at just over half staff, even less than a year ago, when the department had 38 out of 50 FTE filled, according to City budget documents.
And the staffing levels are down even as the total workload is up. Over the last six to eight months, PPB has received between 2,000 and 2,300 stolen vehicle reports per month, Bouyear estimated—the highest level he’s seen in his 29 years at the bureau.
For members of the public, that means delays in processing lower-level crime reports. If someone is the victim of a burglary or car prowl, and they need a police report for an insurance claim, it takes longer than before.
“It takes us time to process it, and it’s a lower priority than things that have to go to court the next day, missing people, stolen cars,” Bouyear said. “With the shortage we have, it ends up sitting in the backlog, and it can wait several months before it’s fully processed.”
That backlog, which includes partially processed reports, is currently 60,000 cases—up from less than 4,000 just four years ago.
It wasn’t always this way. In the late 1980s, when Bouyear first went to work for PPB, there were nearly 90 employees in the records division. It was a more paper-driven job at that time, and with digitization, fewer staff are required today.
But the staffing shortage has been a problem for at least the past several years.
Back in 2018, then-Chief Danielle Outlaw launched a five-year strategic planning process that included evaluating staffing in different departments. At the time, Bouyear calculated there were too few records workers to handle their workload, and that the records division had a small backlog of reports.
“After a pandemic, and people leaving for other jobs, I don’t know what our ratio is right now, but it’s gotten much worse, it’s probably 10 times worse,” Bouyear said.
On some days during the height of the pandemic, there were just a handful of employees working.
Several factors are contributing to the shortage. Employees are leaving the bureau for other agencies outside Portland, due to COVID-19 policies or other reasons, and that’s compounded by difficulty hiring new workers fast enough.
It takes nine months to train new hires to do the basic level of work, and another year to get them fully trained, said Bouyear, who handles training. PPB is also looking to hire officers and public safety support specialists, as well as professional staff in other divisions, all of whom have to go through a background check.
“They don’t have enough background investigators for everybody, so that process is a little slow,” Bouyear said.
The division has been hiring recently, and Bouyear anticipates the staff-to-workload ratio might improve in a year and a half, due to the training timeline. There is also work underway to further digitize the records system, which would save records employees time spent retrieving physical documents. That’s in process, but with other priorities in the bureau, such as hiring officers to fill vacancies, it’s not at the top of the list.
For now, Bouyear says many AFSCME-represented workers in the division feel overworked and are feeling greater stress. Workers are taking more sick time, and Bouyear says there’s a lot of burnout.
“People are actively seeking other jobs,” he said. “We’re not doing what we wanted to do when we got hired. We’re not serving the public the best that we can, so that puts stress on us, not being able to help people the way we want to.”