By DEVIN BOONE
Jordan Zaitz strives to police like she parents her kids, 9 and 13: fair, but firm.
Overseeing a camp cleanup, Zaitz gives a camp resident named Dora a couple of hours to pack up if it’s sunny, a couple more if it’s rainy. But Dora has to be done by the time the cleanup crew is done or the crew will pack up whatever’s left and hand it over to the City, which will hold it for Dora for up to 30 days. Also, Dora can only take what she can fit in as many shopping carts as she can push— three or four, not 12 or 20. At first, Dora cried and pleaded with Zaitz that she needed everything. But Zaitz didn’t give in, and the next time Dora saw Zaitz at a camp clean up, she didn’t argue. She figured out a way to fit most of her fossil collection in her carts, but didn’t have room for the sled. “Tough love,” Zaitz says.
“Tough love” as a policy hasn’t had a lot of political currency in Portland in recent years, and thus, Zaitz has often felt in tension with the city she works for as a Portland Police officer assigned to the East Precinct neighborhood response team. “There have to be consequences,” she says. “And right now, there are no consequences.” Or at least not enough of them, Zaitz says.
Zaitz says the guy who goes to Home Depot at Mall 205 every day and steals tools gets only citations and court dates, for which he doesn’t show up.
A guy Zaitz sees in front of the Oregon Clinic every week smoking blues (counterfeit oxycodone pills containing fentanyl) gets citations and a phone number to a state hotline that, as far as she knows, he has never called.
Even if she makes an arrest, it rarely seems worth the paperwork, Zaitz says. One day in early June, a man ran by foot and by car from Zaitz and her partner (a felony), hit a motorist, and was found to be a felon in possession of a firearm (another felony). “And he was home from jail that night,” Zaitz says.
Zaitz thinks criminals know they’re less likely to get caught, and that if they are, the consequences are likely less stringent than they used to be. They also know a lot of loopholes. A couple weeks ago, Zaitz stopped a girl who swore that all three ounces of crystal meth she had on her were for personal use–probably to avoid the more serious (and arrestable) offense of distribution and delivery. [The legal limit for personal use of methamphetamine under Oregon’s decriminalization law is 3 grams.] And Zaitz says it’s increasingly common that if a suspect is arrested, they’ll say they swallowed dope, because they know an officer is required to take them to the hospital and usually won’t stay the 6 to 24 hours it takes for them to get cleared to leave.
If Zaitz does arrest someone, it’s not uncommon for them to be released within a couple hours, sometimes before a prosecutor at the district attorney’s office even sees the case. Other times, a prosecutor will decline one of Zaitz’s cases for reasons that seem, to her, unconvincing (the “low level nature of the offense” or the “significant backlog of cases caused by the pandemic”). There often aren’t judges or space in the docket for low level offenses like theft of less than $1,000.
It’s not exactly what Zaitz had in mind when she joined the force in 2004. She was 23 years old and had the idea that if she became a police officer, she’d get to chase bad guys and drive fast and know things before everyone else. At first, she did get to drive fast, fairly frequently, when in pursuit of a suspect, and there were a few so-called bad guys she felt satisfied to put away—a murderer, a bank robber, and one especially chilling man convicted of beating his girlfriend’s 18-month-old son to death.
But then the department greatly curtailed officers’ ability to pursue (only for felony person crimes or extraordinary circumstances). A Minnesota cop killed George Floyd, sparking protests for more than 100 explosive and intensely acrimonious nights in Portland. Many officers resigned or retired. Few new ones were hired. Zaitz says “chasing bad guys” became something the department was less and less able to do.
“We just don’t have the resources,” she says. “We’re running shifts five, six officers below minimums. Never in my career has it been that low.”
Far more often than chasing bad guys, Zaitz finds herself in conversation with people like Dora, with the sled, or with the guy who steals from Home Depot every day, or a man she recently watched leave Target with a bag of stolen merchandise in each hand … and go directly to his dealer’s apartment across the street, where he paid for his pills in Tide Pods and white t-shirts.
“Do you want blues or black?” Zaitz heard the dealer ask, but she didn’t have a search warrant for his apartment, so she scolded him and left.
“It’s my job to parent adults whose parents didn’t parent them,” Zaitz says.
Fewer officers and fewer consequences have likely contributed to higher crime rates. The pandemic—and the social and economic distress it caused—also surely contributed. Portland set a new record in homicides last year, and is currently on pace to set another. Frustration with the garbage and tent encampments and stolen catalytic converters is so palpable that policing in Portland might be changing again.
“While the defund movement is kind of over, people [in Portland] haven’t really vocally come back and said, ‘You’re right, we need you,’” Zaitz says. “They’re happy to have us here and they’re not complaining that we’re here, but they’re not actively saying, ‘We need you.’”
“And,” she goes on, “we need the community to say they want us to be like [we used to be] again.”
To her, this means more proactive police work, more consequences for crimes. But for many in Portland, it’s a more complicated question. Portland police were found in federal court to have used excessive force on people with mental illness. They’ve also been accused of disproportionately targeting black motorists.
Zaitz says many reforms have been instituted since then: Portland police approach people with mental illness more slowly and carefully. They know not to engage until the less lethal unit is present with tasers and bean bag guns. They often explain to people they stop why they fit the description of a suspect. But the police department’s reputation still suffers, and its relationship with the public is strained.
This is one reason why the Portland Police Association is so important to Zaitz and other officers. Union membership is strictly voluntary in the public sector, but only one officer in the entire department has elected not to join PPA. Officers see PPA as a constant source of support in a city that has been less constant in its support.
“It’s nice to know somebody has your back, and you’re not just going to get hung out to dry when you’re out there with good intentions, doing the best work that you can in the moment,” Zaitz says.
Meanwhile, there are still moments where it all comes together—where she’s chasing a bad guy, putting information together before anyone else and even doing a little tough love parenting. A few months ago, Zaitz responded to a domestic violence call and arrived to find a young woman who’d been thrown from a car. Zaitz realized the woman had been the subject of a missing persons report filed the previous year by her mom in North Dakota. “Get her on a plane,” the mom said to Zaitz. “I want her to come home.”
Zaitz took the woman, who was 21 and addicted to fentanyl, to the hospital. Another officer took her to the airport, even escorting her through TSA because she didn’t have a license. But then the officer had to leave and, 30 minutes before takeoff, the woman left the airport and disappeared again.
Weeks later, Zaitz saw that another officer had arrested the woman’s boyfriend for stealing a car. She called the officer hoping he’d gotten a phone number for the woman—and he had! Zaitz gave her mom the number, and a week later, the mom texted Zaitz to say her daughter had come home and gone into rehab.
“That’s one of my happy stories,” Zaitz says. “It’s why the job is worth it.”