Federal law enforcement agencies are stepping in to help Portland stem a string of shootings and homicides that has terrorized parts of the city.
A new proposed task force would consist of agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as federally deputized investigators from the Portland Police Bureau’s new Enhanced Community Safety Team.
“It comes with limited authority for the officers,” said Portland Police Bureau Deputy Chief Chris Davis. “We want to form a collaboration with these two federal investigative entities to help us with the investigative side of dealing with gun crimes.”
So far this year there have been 20 homicides and at least 225 non-suicide shootings in the city, a breathtaking increase from the same time period last year, when there had only been 111 shootings and three homicides by the end of March.
“We’re interested in increasing our capacity but don’t have signed agreements yet,” said Jim Middaugh, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s spokesperson “We’re doing our due diligence with the council and community members to ensure we have a proposal that successfully saves lives.”
Middaugh said Wheeler plans to brief the City Council and answer commissioners’ questions before moving forward with the proposed task force.
“It is a public safety crisis and we’ve got to start attacking this aggressively,” Kieran Ramsey, the new Special Agent in Charge of the Portland FBI field office, told reporters last week.
With little evidence to support the claim, PPB has argued the decision last summer to disband the controversial Gun Violence Reduction Team is contributing to the spiraling shooting problem in the city. Experts dispute that assertion.
This most recent plan comes after multiple proposals to address gun violence in the city were greeted with tepid receptions, including a recent proposal to allocate $2 million to re-establish a uniformed patrol team focused on violence prevention and response.
More than anything, Davis said, the task force brings with it badly needed resources. Amidst a bleak budgetary outlook and worsening personnel shortage, the FBI and ATF will be contributing people, money for overtime and vehicles for investigators to use. Federal agencies also open up smoother access to forensic resources.
“The FBI has tremendous capability for forensic analysis of evidence,” Davis said. “And then the ATF ... they’re really good at helping with firearms tracing and some of those investigative skills and techniques and tools that help to investigate crimes like this.”
The question of federally deputized Portland police officers alarmed many in the city last fall after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown created an Oregon State Police-led task force to manage a Proud Boys rally in the city. OSP arranged for Portland police officers to be deputized by the U.S. Marshals Service as part of that task force, leading many to fear the expanded authority would allow Portland officers to circumvent restrictions on crowd-control munitions and tear gas.
That conflict only escalated after the city tried to end the deputations and the Trump administration refused.
This is very different, Davis said.
“We want to be clear with them, and with everybody else, that this does not involve giving our officers authority to do things that they are otherwise prohibited from doing, like immigration enforcement support or crowd management,” Davis said. “It’s focused on just the investigation of gun crimes.”
In the hopes of further solidifying the scope of the deputations, the police bureau is sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice specifically outlining the role and limitations on officers assigned to the task force.
Despite substantially fewer shootings in their patrol districts, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office also plans to have one detective on the task force.
“Just like crime, gun violence does not have borders,” said sheriff’s office spokesperson Chris Liedle. “People can travel. So even though our communities have a much lower rate of gun violence, they’re not immune. Shootings can happen anywhere.”
Out of nearly 900 shootings last year, comparatively few cases were presented to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office for prosecution. Law enforcement officials hope the beefed up investigative resources can improve that track record. Police caution, however, that eyewitnesses and community help is still a critical component of gun crime investigations.