With less than two weeks remaining in 2020, Mayor Ted Wheeler, Police Chief Chuck Lovell and Office of Violence Prevention Director Nike Greene announced preliminary plans to try and curb a dramatic increase in shootings and homicides.
The plan, announced Friday evening, calls for more detectives to be assigned to investigate and follow up on shootings, and more outreach and hospital-based trauma responders to be deployed when someone is shot. The mayor has also asked the Police Bureau and Office of Violence Prevention to submit budget requests to better allow those agencies to respond to gun violence.
The announcement comes months after an Aug. 6 press conference when Wheeler promised a plan was imminent to address a problem that was ballooning as early as March, when the city recorded a 150% increase in shooting injuries.
So far this year, there have been 858 shootings in Portland, with 224 people shot and 39 homicides involving a firearm, far outpacing previous years. Now, as a year many hope will be a statistical outlier in nearly every way comes to a close, there is little consensus as to what should be done to address the problem — and concern that the spike in shootings may not be an aberration.
In August, two months into near-nightly racial justice protests, an embattled Wheeler was in the midst of a narrowing reelection campaign. With gun violence surging, the mayor and City Council were facing criticism from many in the Police Bureau for dissolving their gun violence reduction team.
“Those were decisions that were made outside of the Police Bureau and they’re having a very direct impact on the lives of people here in the city of Portland over the past three weeks,” said then Assistant Chief Andy Shearer, days before his retirement in August. “And there are people that have been shot and people that have been killed, and that very well may not have occurred had we still had a GVRT in place over these last three weeks.”
Shearer called the spike “staggering and unacceptable.”
Experts say it is critical to intervene to stop cycles of retaliatory violence, which supporters of the GVRT claim was an aspect lost when the police unit disbanded.
“Right now, in the city of Portland, there is no uniform component that is contacting any of the subjects involved in gun violence or any of this back and forth retaliation stuff,” said Sgt. Ken Duilio, one of the former gun violence prevention team members who is now working in the detective division. “Let’s not get rid of the unit focused on gun violence, because then people are running around the city completely unchecked, involved in the back and forth. ... The city is becoming a shooting gallery.”
Of particular concern, Duilio said, is the increase this year in people injured by gunfire. Some months in 2020 saw a 200% increase in shooting injuries, a hit rate increase Duilio attributes to more people being involved in each incident. In previous years, finding 40 to 50 casings at a shooting was considered very high.
“Now, we’ve had several between 60 to 80 and we had one that had 151 casings,” he said. “You might have a shooting that has on one side three or four shooters, and on the other side three or four shooters. And they’re all shooting and they’re all emptying their clips.”
Crime data, however, is notoriously difficult to analyze for short term conclusions. Homicide rates in 51 cities have increased an average of 35.7% this year, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher. Experts have varying theories as to what extent the pandemic, economic uncertainty, civil unrest, or a surge in gun purchases may have contributed. But the conclusion that disbanding the GVRT had an impact on Portland’s shooting and homicide rate is not widely supported outside of the bureau. Data on targeted interventions like the GVRT suggests they may work in the short term, but long term success is more elusive.
Further complicating the analysis, homicide and shooting rates were trending upward before 2020.
“I think that narrative — ‘Is this due to the pandemic? Is it due to disbanding the GVRT?’ — I think are false narratives,” said Portland State University criminology professor Brian Renauer. “There is something that was occurring before both of those happened.”
Renauer said the key to understanding the data and formulating solutions is to understand the population most impacted and involved in gun violence.
Between April 2019 and June 2020, the California Partnership for Safe Communities and the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform were hired to work with the mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention to do an analysis of gun violence in the city.
That report found the Black community is disproportionately impacted by gun violence, making up 50.7% of the victims and suspects. The report also found that less than 8% of the victims and suspects were under 18, contradicting a long-held assumption that gun violence is perpetrated by and impacting young people.
Instead, the report found the most impacted age group is 25- to 34-year-olds. That data point supports one of Renauer’s theories: that the recent upward homicide and shooting trend isn’t related to the current economic downturn. Instead, he points to the 2008 recession.
Renauer said high concentrations of people living below the poverty line, high rates of unemployment and other socioeconomic indicators often correlate to higher rates of neighborhood violence. But, Renauer said, changes in those indicators can be slow to manifest.
“Maybe we’re actually feeling the ramifications of the struggling economy in the early 2010s that impacted families, impacted the youth growing up in those families,” he said. “And now, we’re seeing the repercussions of it as those youth are now in their teenage and young adult years.”
If shootings and homicides are exasperated by socioeconomic inequalities and access to resources in a community, Renauer said, the solution may not lie with the police.
Shearer agrees. In a February budget hearing, he spoke to some members of the City Council about gun violence in the city and urged them to allocate more funding for social services and outreach programs.
Perhaps one of PPB’s harshest critics, Teressa Raiford, the founder of Don’t Shoot PDX and a long time activist for police accountability in Portland, expressed dismay that there is little action from city leaders to address poverty.
“There’s people still dying because they don’t have good, healthy food to eat or a place to live,” Raiford said in an August interview with OPB. “And so guess what, the crime that’s connected to poverty in Black communities is exasperated. There’s still no placement of accountability to our leaders to do anything about it. There are no resources except for the resource of rhetoric.”
Raiford said the obsession with collecting more data and producing more reports hasn’t produced solutions.
“When we talk about our demands as Black Lives Matter activists for more resources in our communities, it’s because no resources exist in our communities to address these issues,” she said. “There’s just partnerships. The partnerships are literally quantifying what’s happening. They’re not dealing with it, with solutions.”