Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s planned response to increasing gun violence inched closer to becoming reality Friday with the first meeting of a community oversight group that will work with the police bureau’s new Focused Intervention Team. The meeting comes two months after Wheeler and city council rushed through a package to address an urgent gun violence crisis in the city, circumventing the normal process allowing public testimony.
Eight members of the new board were at Friday’s meeting. They have a variety of backgrounds including social work, religious leadership, community organizing, activism and experience with gun violence. One member, Chanel Thomas, is a victim advocate with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
“We’re offering them an opportunity to operationally provide direction to the police bureau in their efforts to reduce gun violence,” Wheeler’s director of strategic innovations, and former mayor, Sam Adams said. “This group is going to be hiring police that apply to be part of the Focused Intervention Team and meeting with them weekly to provide the operational intelligence where others in the community believe they can offer the greatest value to interrupt the socially connected gun violence that’s going on in the community.”
Once it’s stood up, the bureau’s new Focused Intervention Team will be tasked with interrupting cycles of gun violence in the city. That means proactive policing to get guns off the street, and identifying people involved in shootings in order to interrupt cycles of retaliatory violence.
That mission is nearly identical to the controversial Gun Violence Reduction Team which community members said – and data proved – had overpoliced the Black community.
Wheeler and city council disbanded the GVRT in response to protester demands during last summer’s racial justice protests, almost a year to the day before Friday’s oversight group meeting. The Focused Intervention Team will join the newly created enhanced community safety team; a 24/7 team of on-call investigators charged with responding to and investigating shootings, giving the city two dedicated gun violence teams.
The renewed focus on gun violence comes as cities across the country are experiencing dramatic increases in shootings and homicides. There have been 460 shootings in Portland this year and 145 people injured by gunfire. By this time last year, there had been 200 shootings.
Although some have tied the uptick in shootings in Portland to the decision to disband the Gun Violence Reduction Team, it’s a trend that began many months before that decision was made.
Despite the similarities with the GVRT, Wheeler has insisted the new team’s oversight group makes it different from its predecessor.
“We are not bringing it back,” Wheeler said of the GVRT at a March press conference announcing his new plan. “The part of GVRT that was objected to was that there was not community oversight, there was not a clear objective.”
This newest oversight group joins a crowded pack of existing advisory groups and an oversight process many, including the mayor, have called toothless.
The Independent Police Review, the city agency charged with overseeing the police bureau, is hamstrung by restricted access to police bureau records, as well as by bureau directives and state laws that give police enormous leeway and shrouds discipline in secrecy.
At times, Wheeler has appeared to question the need for citizen oversight of the police bureau.
A frustrated member of the Citizen Review Committee, a group of volunteers who advise the Independent Police Review, cited one particular incident in her 2020 resignation letter. In 2019, former Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw opted not to discipline an officer accused of retaliating against someone who photographed the officer’s vehicle. Every member of City Council voted to overturn Outlaw’s decision, except Wheeler, who voted in support of Outlaw and said he wondered “if this was really a fair or reasonable process.”
“I was dismayed by the Mayor’s reaction and the ultimate consequence for the officer involved in a case our committee and the rest of City Council saw as clear retaliation,” Hillary Houck wrote in her CRC resignation letter. “Mayor Wheeler questioned why we would even have a citizen committee that could overturn decisions made by the Chief of Police.”
Last November, voters took a major step toward addressing police accountability shortcomings when they overwhelmingly approved a new community oversight board with the power to discipline and fire officers. The measure, championed by Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, called for a commission to take 18 months to determine how members of the board will be selected, how long terms will be and other operating details.
But progress has been slow. Seven months after the measure passed, the commission hasn’t been established prompting an angry letter Thursday from members of the Portland Mental Health Alliance.
“While the members of the Mental Health Alliance endorsed this initiative, in seven months city leaders have yet to produce a plan for the transition between its current system of accountability and a new one,” the letter read. “While the current system of accountability is in transition, without a detailed transition plan the city could wind up with no system of police accountability in Portland while we wait for the new system to come online.”
The letter said a reduction or absence of oversight would be disastrous and demanded a detailed transition plan and timeline.
“Currently Council offices are meeting weekly to finalize the selections for the community members that will spend the next year+ finalizing the fine details of the oversight board beyond the charter changes voters approved,” Hardesty spokesperson Matt McNally said. “We received over 100 applications from the community for this next step in the process.”
Adams said he has deep experience working with the police advisory groups and is bringing all of his lessons learned to implementing this one. But unlike the voter approved oversight board, which the police union is vehemently fighting, the Focused Intervention Team oversight group has limited authority to compel the police to do anything, let alone hold officers accountable.
“The difference is, this is a group working with police officers to curb gun violence,” Portland Police Association President Daryl Turnersaid. He added the voter approved oversight board was passed without input from the police union and declined to comment on officer discipline.
The police bureau has struggled to figure out how to staff the new team while managing an existing officer shortage. Assistant Chief Jami Resch is expected to update the FIT oversight group next week on the status of officer applications for the new team.