The city of Gresham recently announced it will be shifting some of its police officers from specialty divisions to patrol duties as a way to respond to vacancies on the force.

Changes include moving officers from the department’s Traffic Unit, Neighborhood Enforcement Team and Transit Division. Beginning Jan. 1, officers who previously dealt with traffic enforcement, livability issues like abandoned vehicles or helped with security near TriMet services will start taking patrol calls, according to the city.

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Gresham officials noted that patrol officers are still able to enforce traffic violations.

A city spokesperson told OPB that Gresham has 12 current vacancies among its 127 budgeted sworn officer positions.

“Like many other organizations, we are struggling to find applicants to fill vacant positions,” the city said in a statement.

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Spokesperson Sarah Cagann said Gresham has 1.09 officers per 1,000 residents, which she noted is below the national average. According to FBI data from 2019, the latest figures available, the national average for officers in cities Gresham’s size was 1.6 per 1,000 residents. Along the West Coast, that figure drops to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents.

Police unions and some pro-law enforcement groups have bemoaned declining numbers of officers as being the result of rising criticism against police or budget cuts. But the vacancies in Gresham are not related to budget changes. Instead, they highlight potentially larger challenges emerging in policing: namely, recruiting and retaining the next generation of officers.

In its statement, Gresham noted its officer shortage is directly related to police “retiring, moving to other agencies, or leaving law enforcement altogether.”

Whatever is leading to the shortages, city officials said they do not intend to make the changes to the Traffic Unit and other affected divisions permanent.

Other cities in Multnomah County are experiencing similar issues recruiting officers. In Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced this week he wants to spend $400,000 on a plan to rehire recently retired officers, who would then be able to collect both a state pension and a paycheck. The aim of that program is to quickly get trained officers working as the region continues to deal with a rise in homicides and shootings.

Part of Portland’s difficulty finding officers may be affected, at least in part, by cuts to recruiting and background check employees made early in the pandemic to save money. Portland has around 100 open sworn officer positions, and around 340 applicants awaiting background checks, and another 140 currently moving through the process.

Meanwhile, Gresham is still figuring out how it plans to address its officer shortage. The city said it is “exploring a variety of possible solutions,” including looking at its hiring strategies and possibly changing how police respond to non-emergency calls. The city says it plans to publicly share its plans in the coming months.

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