Responding to a sharp increase in shootings and homicides that began in 2019 and accelerated in the second half of 2020, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced Thursday he will ask the City Council for $2 million in one time funds for gun violence prevention programs.
“Reducing gun violence isn’t inexpensive,” Wheeler said. “But I hope and I believe that by taking action today, we can break the cycle of violence and reduce the need for additional ongoing investments. The success of this work will be measured by lives lost or lives saved.”
As of March 8, this year has seen 278 shootings and 17 homicides in the Portland region, which includes Portland and all of Multnomah County. By the end of February, the Portland Police Bureau said there had been 179 shootings in the city. By March 10, the city had tallied 20 homicides, 15 of them with guns.
Under the plan put forward Thursday by the Inter-Faith Peace and Action Collaborative – a coalition of faith leaders and activists with close ties to the police bureau – Portland police would get funds to support the recently announced Enhanced Community Safety Team, increase the number of detectives available to investigate shootings, and re-establish a uniformed patrol team to engage in violence prevention and response.
If approved, the city would restore nearly all of the functions – though not the name – of the city’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, a program that was disbanded in 2020 in response to longtime community demands.
“We are not bringing it back,” Wheeler said. “To be clear, the part about GVRT that was objected to by many members of the community was that there wasn’t community oversight. There wasn’t clarity in terms of what the engagement was. There wasn’t the collection and the transparent dissemination of data.”
The new plan would create an independent watchdog to oversee the new program that will bring back many of GVRT’s functions.
Wheeler’s characterization of why the community pushed to dismantle the team, however, is not entirely accurate.
GVRT had a documented history of disproportionately policing the Black community and had long been a target of vitriol by activists seeking more effective solutions to community gun violence. Disbanding GVRT was part of the $15 million cut to the police bureau’s budget that came in response to last summer’s racial justice protests. Along with removing school resource officers, dismantling GVRT was one of the more high profile successes of the protest movement.
“I went to probably eight years worth of GVRT meetings and they quantify data, they do not problem solve,” said Teressa Raiford, executive director of Don’t Shoot PDX, in an August interview with OPB. “They go to parks and they see kids playing. And every two weeks they talk about how they connect with those kids after investigating them illegally.”
The plan announced by Wheeler on Thursday is the most recent attempt by officials to address a gun violence problem that has been growing for well over a year.
While much of the talk from leaders has focused on the decision to disband GVRT, increasing gun violence and homicide rates have been causing alarm locally and nationally long before massive protests swept the country last June.
In a December 2019 press conference, police officials expressed concern over an increase in shootings that they said involved more guns and more people exchanging gunfire.
Portland police reported 50 gun violence incidents in January 2020 compared to only 32 the year before. A few months later in April, shooting incidents again nearly doubled from the same month the year prior.
By the end of 2020, there had been 893 shootings in the city, more than double what Portland saw in 2019. The city’s 55 homicides in 2020 were the most in 26 years.
That staggering upward trend has continued in 2021 and Portland is once again on pace to shatter records.
“It’s a state of emergency,” said Antoinette Edwards, the former director of the Office of Youth Violence Prevention who worked with the interfaith collaborative on these proposals. “Apathetic silence must end from all levels, everywhere.”
The requested money would also go to programs outside of the Portland Police Bureau.
The Mayor’s Office of Violence Prevention would get funding to expand street level outreach, increase the number of people working with those at highest risk of engaging in or being a victim of gun violence, expand hospital-based violence interruption, as well fund an outside organization that consults on evidenced based ways to reduce gun violence.
Wheeler said he hopes to bring the request to city commissioners in the next couple of weeks.