It was a phrase he repeated to himself several times each day when his patience started to wane and he could feel the frustration hardening in his chest: They were all doing their best. The police officers whose active patrol force had shrunk by 20 percent to crisis levels because of attrition, recruiting challenges and the impact of calls to defund the police. The people sleeping on sidewalks as rents soared to record highs and shelters filled to capacity. The addicts who could either wait in line at 6 a.m. for the outside chance of a spot in rehab or numb their pain with another fentanyl pill for the going price of 50 cents. They were all suffering together through the morass of a damaged society.
“Our entire first responder system in this city, according to the people who run it, is 20 years behind the ball and critically understaffed,” the mayor said last year at a City Council meeting. The city itself had increasingly turned to the same Band-Aid fix as everyone else, spending more than $4 million a year on private security guards to help protect parks, water treatment facilities, parking garages and city hall.
The booming industry was nobody’s idea of a perfect or comprehensive solution. More than a dozen security guards in Portland had been accused of assault or harassment, and one was convicted of murder earlier this year after fatally shooting a customer outside of a Lowe’s store. Guards in Oregon were sometimes trained and certified in as little as 16 hours, and more than 100 companies operated in downtown Portland on any given night under different policies and company rules.
Echelon was one of the most proactive, with more than 75 guards who patrolled the city 24 hours a day. At least 400 fed-up local businesses paid Echelon a monthly fee to run interference with homeless people by building relationships, offering resources to people with addictions and mental illness, buying their breakfasts, replacing their shoes, reversing their overdoses and de-escalating their episodes of psychosis.
Bock’s previous security job had been at a company that stationed him outside a grocery store as a deterrent to shoplifting and told him to avoid interacting with customers. “A human scarecrow,” was how Bock described that role, so he chose to move to Echelon in 2021 despite the long hours and middle-class pay, because he wanted to be part of the glue that pieced his hometown back together.
"How can any of this be considered normal?" Another stunning @elisaslow story from the front lines of the urban unraveling, on one of the countless private security guards being hired to patrol American cities: https://t.co/kfYK1qGbNa
— Alec MacGillis (@AlecMacGillis) October 2, 2023