Hiring Ex-Cons to patrol Portland

By William MacKenzie,

Portland’s flailing Mayor, Ted Wheeler, has a new idea, bring in ex-cons who have served decades in prison after being convicted of serious crimes, which can include murder, to patrol the city’s troubled streets.,

He wants to contract with a San Francisco-based nonprofit, Urban Alchemy (UA) that hires formerly incarcerated convicts to patrol troubled areas to address street-level issues rooted in addiction, mental illness and homelessness. The plan is for Urban Alchemy to deploy outreach patrols in the city center where Portland police have struggled to maintain patrols.

“We want to make sure that that presence, the things we need in place to keep downtown Portland on the path to recovery, is there 24/7,” said Jon Isaacs, the Portland Metro Chamber’s assistant director for public affairs.

In April, UA was awarded a five-year contract for up to $50 million to operate temporary, congregate shelter sites in Portland.

The new patrol idea is reminiscent of Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels, formed in the 1970s to patrol New York’s subways and streets combat crime and violence in the city. The group, unarmed, but trained in karate and prepared to make citizens’ arrests , drew strong public reactions, positive and negative.

The New Yorker described the group as “… a civilian crime-watch group whose recruits became street icons for patrolling scuzzy subway cars, intimidating chain snatchers, making the occasional citizen’s arrest, and irritating the police.”

What are the chances Urban Alchemy will be another ill-advised fiasco for Portland?

According to a story in The Nation, UA “practitioners” or “ambassadors” guard corners and patrol Market Street, in San Francisco respond to emergency calls relating to homelessness, and monitor tent encampments and shelters. Some wear sunglasses and balaclavas with their uniform: a camouflage jacket emblazoned on the back with the group’s all-seeing-eye logo.

In February, San Francisco selected Urban Alchemy to operate a Community Response Team, a one-year, $2.75 million police alternative that would handle low-level calls about homelessness that come in via 911.

“We should be excited,” Lena Miller, who has a PhD in psychology and co-founded UA in 2018, told The Nation. “You got long-term offenders who’ve done 30, 40 years in prison. They’re the alternatives to the police. And furthermore, the police and the police unions are with it.”

But not everybody is on board.

As Mara Math of San Francisco puts it, “Urban Alchemy is not beloved here in San Francisco.”

Some criticize UA for policing public space, providing not compassionate care, but alternative policing. “It sounds good on paper,” Couper Orona, a street medic, told The Nation. “It’s a security force that can bully people into doing what they want—but it’s OK because it’s not the police.” Or as Street Sheet, a San Francisco street newspaper, put it, Urban Alchemy “…is structured to manage public space, not to address homelessness.”

Earlier this year the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Urban Alchemy faced multiple lawsuits over sexual harassment, unpaid overtime and forcing people to move without cause. Two employees were shot in 2022 in the city’s Tenderloin district, raising concerns about placing them in dangerous scenarios without adequate training.

Street Roots, a weekly alternative newspaper that covers homeless issues, has reported on a lawsuit which alleges UA “has deployed hundreds of inadequately-trained, reformed long-term felons in public spaces to assume certain government functions traditionally performed by professionally-trained law enforcement personnel.”

CityWatch, a news and information website and newsletter, has described UA as “…an agency with questionable claims to success and an unproven business strategy. The reasons for hiring such a controversial organization run the gamut of possibilities, from being too lazy to check prior performance, to desperation to hire anyone as a sign of taking bold action…”

Based on past experience, that’s Portland’s credo. Do something, anything, to make it appear like the city is taking bold action.