Today’s Leadership Challenges

PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Portland, OR Police Chief Chuck Lovell about his first two months as police chief in the midst of a pandemic and nightly demonstrations for 65 days in a row. 

Chief Lovell also discussed the unusual circumstances in which he was chosen to be chief, his approach to leadership, how he navigated relationships with his city council and with federal agencies, strategies for supporting his officers and rebuilding a community-based district policing model, and how his childhood experience delivering newspapers shaped his ideas about community service.

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Portland Chief Chuck Lovell

Chuck Wexler: What challenges are you facing now?

Chief Lovell: To me as a leader, the toughest thing to do is change the culture of a place – especially under the conditions we have now, with the pandemic, a big budget shortfall, and still disturbances in the streets to some degree. And we’re not able to bring in new people because of budgets being cut. I’m struggling with how to change the culture and put us back on track towards trust and relationship-building with the community.

Wexler: What were the circumstances under which you became chief?

Chief Lovell:  I was a lieutenant, and I had been the acting captain of the Community Services Division for almost a year. Chief Danielle Outlaw left in January of this year, and Chief Jami Resch took over. After the murder of George Floyd, there were cries for reform and change. I’ve always been a community guy. I have a lot of relationships in the African-American community, and at the time I was helping the chief put together meetings and connect with the community.

She called me one Sunday and asked me to come downtown. We talked in her office, and she said, “I’ve watched you with the community and I see how people relate to you and how you relate to the community. I think you are what we need right now.”

I suggested a couple other ideas, but she said none of that would work unless I was sitting in the chief’s chair. I went home, thought about it, and the next morning I said yes and was announced as chief.

We had a call that Sunday night with the mayor. Chief Resch had already talked to him, told him what she wanted to do, and he was supportive. The mayor and I had a good working relationship because I was Chief Outlaw’s chief of staff for almost two years. I spent that time as a lieutenant with a front-row seat at different events and trips to City Hall with Chief Outlaw. So I had a grasp of what this job was like in Portland, and had relationships with elected officials and community leaders through my time in the chief’s office.

Wexler:  You’ve had to manage challenges from day one, haven’t you?

Chief Lovell:  That’s right. I remember walking over that Monday morning to be announced as chief and looking at the spray paint on the buildings and barriers outside City Hall. Things like “All cops are bastards,” “All cops must die,” and “F the police.” I had never really imagined myself making that walk to be named chief, and it was really tough to make it under these circumstances, reading these things, and knowing I was about to become the face of the Police Bureau in a town where that’s some of the sentiment.

And we’re right in the middle of a pandemic. We had budget cuts of $26-27 million that weren’t finalized, but were announced and I knew were coming. And we were in week two of the crowd control events, which were fairly violent at that time. All those things were going on as I was coming in to try to do what I can to help both the Police Bureau and the community.

Wexler:  Tell me more about the budget cuts.

Chief Lovell:  Initially we had prepared about a 5% budget reduction as part of the budget process. Some of that money was going to be lost because of the pandemic and the loss of revenue for the city. Then the defund movement was on top of that. The thought was that we would take money from police budgets to shore up other community services and help different organizations in the city that support people of color. So we took about a $15-million hit on top of our predesignated budget cut package. That added up to about $26-27 million in total, and the loss of 84 sworn positions. That’s out of a total budget of about $229 million.

Wexler:  How will those cuts impact your operations?

Chief Lovell:  In general terms, I feel like you can’t defund your way to improvement. People want good policing, despite some of the talk you hear about abolishing police and defunding the police down to nothing. At the end of the day, I think most people want and need police and good policing. And you can’t get there by making divestments. You need to make investments.

You need to bring on new people who are energetic and want to serve the community, and be able to shape the way you train them to do that mission. You need to be able to staff appropriately. One of the things I want to do is go back to a real community-based district policing model. In order to make that successful, officers have to have time to spend with community members and build relationships. You can’t build any relationship without investing time. We need to give officers the time to do that.

I want to bring some different training to the Training Division. When our trainees are going through our Advanced Academy, I want to let them spend some of that time in the community volunteering. But that stretches out your training time and requires you to backfill on the patrol side.

To make these improvements, you really need to have some level of investment in your police department.

Wexler:  How many straight nights of demonstrations have you had?

Chief Lovell:  I think we’re at about night 65 now. I’ve never seen anything like this in my 18+ year career. It’s difficult to get people to do anything for 65 nights in a row.

We have some really peaceful protests that encompass thousands of people who meet at a park or other venue, march, and give and listen to speeches. Those groups require essentially zero police interaction. They bring vehicles or bicycles to block streets and facilitate their march. And there are people who are really, really committed to having their voices heard and pushing for real reforms. They’re pushing for racial justice and the elimination of inequalities in our system of criminal justice, law enforcement, and society at large. I really appreciate those voices.

But we do have a small faction of folks who are intent on committing acts of destruction to police facilities, and are basically looking to lure the police into a fight on a nightly basis. There are a few hundred of them who we deal with, who require a lot of our time and resources. And they take away from our ability to deal with the important things – the conversations, the relationships, the reforms, and the path forward.

My officers who are out there every night dealing with the violent actors have done a commendable job. I can’t say enough about their level of professionalism and their commitment. Many have worked the vast majority of those 65 nights without a break. Their resilience, commitment, and love of this community cannot be overstated.

Wexler:  Has the Portland City Council placed restrictions on your use of chemical agents or other equipment?

Chief Lovell:  Much like we’ve seen in Seattle, there has been a lot of angst about the use of CS gas here. I’ve fought that, because it’s our best way to effectively disperse a hostile crowd. It’s not an elegant or precise tool, but we give several announcements and provide every opportunity to vacate the area prior to using it. And without the ability to use that, I essentially have officers out there outnumbered with a hostile crowd and only sticks to defend themselves or repel a crowd. The risk of longer-term injury in that scenario is much greater.

So far I’ve been able to maintain the use of the CS gas, although it’s always frowned upon here in Portland.

Wexler:  How have you navigated the federal role in Portland?

Chief Lovell:  Our city council passed a resolution that restricted our ability to communicate with federal partners who are involved in crowd control, including the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Marshals, and Customs and Border Protection. I had spoken out about how that creates a dangerous situation. I always felt like you should never politicize public safety. We have a federal building right next to our justice center, and we’re out doing crowd-control missions within the same block or two on a regular basis. Not being able to communicate with the federal agencies made it much more difficult and much less safe for our officers. We didn’t know if they were pushing a crowd in our direction, and they didn’t know if they would come out into a crowd we were pushing in their direction.

We recently worked out an agreement where Oregon State Police is replacing the federal officers who were at the federal courthouse next door. In the last several days when that has been in place, the downtown area has been a lot more peaceful.

Wexler:  What is your approach to leading under these circumstances?

Chief Lovell:  I’m new to this and haven’t even been chief for two months yet, so I’m still learning and relying heavily on other chiefs on the West Coast, who have been very supportive and helped me a lot. I try to focus on what the path forward will be. Once these demonstrations subside or get to a manageable level, we’ll need to focus on what the path forward for the Portland Police Bureau will look like. How do we get back to giving the community the service they expect? What are the new expectations that we’ll have to incorporate into what we do?

For me it’s about trust. I think we’re going to have to go back a little bit before we can go forward. Some of that will be forced by budgetary constraints, but I think we have to go back to connecting with people and neighborhoods and rebuilding that trust through connection.

Personally, I try to show up every day, make a good decision, follow that with another good decision, and keep that string going. Then I try to come back the next day and start that all over again.

Wexler:  How do you support your officers during these difficult times?

Chief Lovell:  It’s tough. Especially early on, officers would see all this hateful graffiti on sidewalks and buildings during their drive or walk into work in the morning. They would come to work and it was all boarded up, with things painted on the plywood boarding up the doors. It’s a heavy psychological toll for officers to see that every day. So we try to make sure the graffiti is cleaned up early every morning.

We have a good employee assistance program. We have a good group of spouses who come together and provide support for officers. I asked some groups to send cards of support to officers, and we post those throughout the precincts.

It’s difficult to go this long with nightly protests, because you never get a break or a chance to recharge.

There are a lot of citizens and community members who really support the police. I’m always surprised by the number of people who stop to offer support and thank us for what we do.

Wexler:  Did you always want to be a police officer?

Chief Lovell:  I did from a very young age. I think the most formative thing for me was my first job ever, as a paperboy. I would get up early and deliver the newspaper to all my neighbors in a rural area of upstate New York. I was responsible for getting the paper to 50-60 people who were my neighbors and friends. And I would have to collect money every month. So as a 12-year-old kid, I had distinct relationships with all my neighbors because I had to go knock on their doors every month. That included everyone from the person who cracked the door an inch, slid a check out, and slammed the door to people who would invite me in for dinner. That really taught me a sense of community. It wasn’t long before I had keys to people’s houses, and they’d ask me to get their mail and water their plants while they were on vacation. At an early age I knew what it was to be accountable to your neighbors and your community. I think that was the most formative portion of my life that committed me to doing community service-type work.

I joined the Air Force and, at that point, wasn’t thinking about joining law enforcement. I got out of the Air Force, got a job as a consultant doing intelligence work similar to the work I’d done in the Air Force. Then when I moved to Portland, I had finished my degree in criminal justice and thought maybe it was time to apply for a law enforcement job. I applied and was hired by the Portland Police Bureau in 2002.