Over the past few years, Portland, Oregon, like several other United States metro areas, has seen a substantial rise in gun violence. Since 2019, statistics show an increase in the homicide rate, non-fatal gun violence crime and other auxiliary metrics used to measure public safety. But as policy makers and advocates debate solutions to this violence, Portland police have scaled up their efforts to skew media coverage and shape public discourse on crime.
In 2019, the same year that Portland recorded its first statistically significant rise in gun violence, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) each formed new internal divisions: the MCSO Communications Unit and the Strategic Communications Unit inside PPB.
These changes are part of a nationwide trend. In recent years, most major city police forces in the U.S. have formed or expanded their own internal public relations divisions. During this reported increase in violent crime, these new divisions have developed and deployed a key law enforcement tactic: media manipulation.
In 2020, Maya Lau of The Los Angeles Times did a fascinating study of the Los Angeles Police Department and LA County Sheriff’s Department’s incredible public relations efforts and spending. It was revealed, through subsequent reporting, that those two departments alone employed 67 full-time taxpayer-funded public relations officers.
Chicago is another city with famously high crime rates and a staggering number of officers employed in a public relations capacity. Reporting by Geoffrey Cubbage has revealed that the Chicago Police Department employs 48 full-time communications officers.
While these two cities represent some of the largest law enforcement propaganda machines, Portland has seen a documented increase in police efforts at “informing” the public. It is vital to understand how the narrative and messaging around crime is shaped, and by whom, if we are to create effective and equitable public safety measures.
Prior to 2019, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office had one public information officer and one communications officer. In 2019, the Sheriff’s Office formed the Communications Unit, consisting of three full-time executive members and a “small team” of public information officers (PIOs). Christina Kempster, one of two communications coordinators within the MCSO Communications Unit, told Truthout that this unit “develops communications strategies and produces content for internal and external audiences.”
For fiscal year 2023, the Communications Unit accounts for $395,468, more than 5 percent of the Sheriff’s Office total budget. A closer examination of the FY 2023 budget reveals other additions within the executive office of the sheriff’s department that seem related to public relations. The executive office hired a policy adviser who “will also serve as a liaison to community advocates, contract partners, and other public safety organizations.” There is no unique budget line item for this specific position, so it is unclear exactly how much it takes up of the $1.8 million executive office budget.
The setup is slightly different in Washington County, the local governing body serving the greater southwestern suburbs of Portland. However, Daniel DiPietro, communications sergeant for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, told Truthout the current team of five part-time PIOs and himself is not enough. They are also recruiting for a second full-time PIO.
At the county level, these Communications Units within the Sheriff’s Office operate under the broad umbrella of the Public Affairs branch of the county. The Public Affairs and Communications team of Washington County is an eight-person team “responsible for leading and coordinating organization-wide communication efforts,” according to the county webpage. It is led by Communications Officer Philip Brunsford, who failed to respond to inquiries regarding how much of his work organically interacts with the Sheriff’s Office, but two of the three work products displayed on his personal website are related to law enforcement.
This expansion raises the question: Why do law enforcement bodies feel the need to accelerate their efforts to create and disseminate content to the public? Other departments managing things like housing or parks don’t have their own separate public relations branch inside the county.
This same expansion is evident in Portland Police Bureau public relations efforts. According to Sgt. Kevin Allen of PPB, the current iteration of the Strategic Communications Unit has been in place since July 2019, with the addition of one videographer in the fall of 2022, “when it became clear we needed a specialist to meet our need for video/multimedia content.”
As of September, PPB has increased its efforts significantly inside the Strategic Communications Unit and has created a new position: public information manager. Mike Brenner, formerly of KGW, the local NBC affiliate, was tapped to fill this role. The unit’s current iteration consists of the new public information manager, one sworn PIO, a non-sworn PIO, a social media coordinator, a graphic designer and now a full-time videographer. Sergeant Allen also told Truthout that they are “planning to bring on another sworn member to assist.”
The language used by Sergeant Allen is instructive; at a time when PPB is struggling to field officers, they felt a need to hire a full-time videographer. He also told Truthout for the record that, “we do not typically use the term public relations.”
Both MCSO and PPB communications officers are trained to use words like “content” or “providing public safety information” when the reality is that the purpose of these expansions is to produce pro-law enforcement propaganda. It is the purpose of any internal public relations division within any organization, governmental or private, to make the company or organization look good — with little regard for the truth.
Law enforcement efforts to control the narrative and disseminate their side of any story have no discernible end in sight.
Reading local crime news reports, it is abundantly — almost staggeringly — clear that what is filed under “investigation” is often spoon-fed propaganda that serves not to inform the public but to tout the heroic efforts of law enforcement. Take this December 26, 2022, article by KGW Investigative Reporter Kyle Iboshi, titled “Portland Police See Increase in Solved Homicide Cases Amid Rising Homicide Numbers.”
The very first sentence reads, “Despite a record number of homicides in Portland this year, detectives are solving a higher percentage of those cases, according to newly released data.” The improvement cited is a 5 percent increase in the homicide clearance rate, from 48 percent in 2021 to 53 percent in 2022. You don’t have to go far to find out who released this data, as PPB Spokesperson Sergeant Allen is featured in the very next paragraph.
This is in no way meant to belittle the victims of violence who view that marginal improvement as justice served, or to disparage Iboshi, who has otherwise written excellently on why Portland police were the last major police department to not wear body cameras in the U.S. But we must shed light on the age-old lesson of how to lie with statistics, or at least, how to frame the narrative to put a positive spin on a hot-button issue. To Iboshi’s credit, the article later mentions that the Federal Bureau of Investigation national homicide clearance rate hovers at just above 50 percent. So Portland police are performing at just a tick above the average rate, if you go by homicide clearance rates as a barometer of your police force.
The propaganda isn’t exclusive to KGW. In a KOIN 6 story entitled “Record-breaking Portland homicides loom over end-of-2022 celebrations,” Sergeant Allen “shared that 2022 had the lowest police staffing in many years with under 800 sworn members at its lowest point.” By emphasizing this point, and having it dutifully repeated by reporters, Sergeant Allen not-so-subtly suggests a causal link between the record number of homicides and the police staffing shortages. Despite the fact that crime rates are incredibly complex and influenced by many factors, and that the research is mixed on how hiring more officers affects the crime rate, Sergeant Allen is able to manipulate a story that could be an indictment of his department into self-serving propaganda.
These are not outlier pieces. The PPB Strategic Communications Unit’s information webpage states, “The Bureau and/or public safety fulfills the majority of local media’s content.”
There are many reasons for this. Local news is under immense pressure to produce sensational content that attracts viewers and advertisers alike, and what better way to decrease expenses than having local law enforcement do the reporting, including hand delivering videos, graphics and content for you. This is a profitable business model for both sides.
Again, the purpose of a public relations department is to shine a positive light on an organization. It would be bad public relations to look into PPD’s recent lawsuit losses; the 10-day suspension of a 22-year veteran training officer who used an offensive and disparaging slide during PowerPoint instructions on crowd control; or the fact that in 2022, Portland police slid further from compliance with U.S. Department of Justice reforms.
Civil rights attorney and writer Alec Karakatsanis has written extensively on this issue, focusing on large police departments in California, including the San Francisco Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department; as well as Illinois, specifically Chicago. He highlights many of the problems that we are seeing in Portland now, and could continue to see, if this growth goes unchecked.
This is important. The PPB and local county sheriff’s offices continue to expand and attempt to tighten their grip on public safety messaging.
Whenever taxpayer money is being spent on police propaganda efforts, we as a public should be informed and aware of it. It’s no coincidence that law enforcement’s response to Portland’s increasing homicide rate — and to growing resistance to policing both locally and nationally — has been to increase “copaganda” public relations efforts.
The Portland Police Bureau’s efforts to use local news as an extension of its campaign are not unusual within the current national landscape. In cities across the country, law enforcement is using local and national media to present policing as the only means of public safety. But if we want to make our communities truly safe, identifying and combating this propaganda is an essential task.