Q&A with Officer Matt Jacobsen
If you’ve called the Central Precinct anytime over the past few years, you may have spoken to Officer Matt Jacobsen. A familiar figure around Sunnyside, Jacobsen is on the Neighborhood Response Team (portlandoregon.gov/police/article/668128), a program that addresses more deeply rooted and complex problems related to crime, nuisance, and livability issues. As such, he’s forged relationships not only with houseless members of the community but also with nonprofits such as Beacon PDX (beaconvillagepdx.org) and the navigation team at Transition Projects (tprojects.org) who work directly with people living on the street. “I think that seeing everybody as human is really important,” Jacobsen says.
How long have you been working in Sunnyside?
I’ve been a police officer for nearly 13 years. I’ve been in Portland since 2015, and on the Neighborhood Response team since 2017.
How has Sunnyside changed in the time you’ve been working here?
One of the things I witnessed was a pretty significant mobilization of the community in Sunnyside—which is really impressive—whether it be the Neighborhood Association working closely with Beacon PDX, or the shower project. The community has rallied around some of the issues and has generally been very positive in dealing with them. But we’ve also seen an increase in livability issues. The camping concerns definitely remain.
Were there as many people camping here before the pandemic as there are now?
There’s been a pretty steady group of folks that have moved between Sunnyside, Laurelhurst Park and Sewallcrest Park for quite some time.
When you started in 2017, how many officers were on the Neighborhood Response Team?
We had seven officers and a Sergeant. Two of those were assigned full-time as a homeless outreach car. They did nothing but engage with our homeless community, identify our chronically homeless, and try to get those people into some sort of shelter or housing. Now, I have four full-time officers and a Sergeant. So we went from eight people to five.
Why did that happen?
We’ve had staffing difficulties. The homeless outreach car was cut for that reason in 2020. So it’s not as simple as “there was a budget cut.” We had to change how we did things, not just related to the civil unrest we’ve seen, but also related to the pandemic.
What has suffered now that you have fewer officers?
The amount of work didn’t change, but the depth at which we’re able to work has changed. We are still the investigative unit for the precinct. That outreach car was really instrumental in being out and having a lot of face time with our community. We’ve lost that, which is frustrating. We’ve done our best to try to make up for that, but it’s the old story of doing the same with less.
How do you build relationships with people who live here—both housed and unhoused, especially people who may not have had the best experiences with police in the past?
You nailed it on the head. Oftentimes the only contact that people have with the police is negative—somebody’s getting a ticket or getting arrested. So when we’re able to have those positive, or even
just neutral, conversations with people to show that every time the police are engaging with folks it’s not going to be bad, we’re able to build some trust. We can build rapport.
Will you share an anecdote that maybe demonstrates what’s possible when you have these kinds of relationships?
We had a subject at Laurelhurst Park that was resistant to going to housing or other services. But we know him really well. And so once when he was angry about something and said, “You’re going to have to arrest me,” we were able to work that and have a conversation and ultimately, get him into a shelter and get him a new bike.
I know that occasionally, when you’re interacting with someone, you have to call other outreach folks to help because you can sense that someone’s been traumatized by the police. How do you know when you’re not the right person, as a police officer, to help?
After doing this awhile it’s pretty clear when people get sketched out. But again, it’s those relationships with non-governmental organizations, having the ability to just make one phone call and get somebody to help you that allows us to approach the situation in the least traumatic, and the least enforcement-minded, way.
There is a lot of conversation in Portland around changing the way police officers are trained. What trainings have you been through that have been particularly helpful?
I’ve been lucky to go through our Enhanced Crisis Intervention training as well as ongoing training on our Crisis (Hostage) Negotiation Team. Most of the “training,” though, is dealing with folks on the street and learning best practices. I cannot stress enough how important being out in the field and building relationships is.
There are signs all over Sunnyside to abolish and/or defund the police. What’s your response to this? Do any officers on your team ever say, “Forget it! I don’t want to help these people—they don’t even think I should have a job”? Have you had to address morale at all?
I have, but I think the officers on my team are pretty motivated. You’re not on this team unless you’re looking to make a difference. I was born and raised in Portland. I chose to come back here to be a police officer and be part of the community. I’m invested in the success of the community. Often, the worst situations get publicized in the media and the good outcomes, or even the neutral outcomes, don’t get much publicity.
Some Sunnyside residents have shared that when they’ve reported crimes, they either don’t receive a response or that there’s nothing the police can do, which is disappointing. Why should people keep reporting crime? If there are enough reports made, will more officers, maybe, be assigned to this precinct?
Calls may be canceled or responses delayed if we are experiencing a high call volume or the incident doesn’t appear criminal. (Or it’s reported that the behavior has stopped.) Generally we’d expect that the original caller be contacted and notified, though there are times that may not happen. Regardless, the last thing I want to hear is that people don’t feel we’re here when needed. The reality is that with increased call volume and fewer officers, we aren’t as immediately responsive as we’ve been in the past. There is no question that “reporting fatigue” has set in throughout our community.
Reporting is hugely important for the reason you alluded to. It not only helps us frame a truer crime rate, which allows us to then better forecast how many officers are actually needed in Portland, but it also helps me (and our precinct) have a better idea of where to allocate the resources we do have.