There have been more than a thousand shootings in Portland since the beginning of 2021. The city recently set a record for the most homicides in a year — and it’s only October. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner, said one of the solutions is to hire more police officers. He wants to bring back a program that rehires recently retired officers to fill vacancies at the Portland Police Bureau. At the same time, he wants to step up recruitment efforts for new officers.
Wheeler also acknowledged that not every public safety issue requires an armed response. The mayor said he wants to expand Portland Street Response. That program dispatches a firefighter paramedic, a licensed mental health crisis therapist and two community health workers to respond to calls about people experiencing homelessness or mental health crises. It’s currently only available in the Lents neighborhood.
“I’m not going to promise that we can fully staff citywide in the near-term,” he said. “But Commissioner Hardesty and I are definitely committed to putting a proposal in front of the city council that does significantly expand it in the near-term, with the goal towards getting this deployed citywide as soon as we possibly can.”
Wheeler said the process would take more time than he’d like, citing a shortage of mental health workers and the bureaucracy involved in the hiring process for public employee first responder positions.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. There was a shooting in Southeast Portland late last night. One victim was taken to a hospital. Shootings like this have become so common that this one resulted in a two sentence story on a local news site. There have now been more than 1,000 shootings since the start of the year. 300 people have been injured, and the city recently set a record for the most homicides in a year, with more than two months left before the year is even up. City and county leaders say we are in a public health crisis. Ted Wheeler is one of them. He is the mayor of Portland and he joins us to talk about his response to gun violence. Mayor Wheeler, welcome back.
Ted Wheeler: Thank you, David.
Dave Miller: I want to start in the same place that we started last time we talked about gun violence. This was back in March. What’s your diagnosis for the factors behind this surge in violence?
Ted Wheeler: Well, this is a complex issue. And in the short time we have today, I’m going to talk about not only what causes it, but also what actions we are taking to stem the tide of this violence that we’re seeing here in the city of Portland. As you know, as the mayor of this city, I see myself as responsible for what happens here and we have an obligation to solve the problems with the resources we have locally, but the context here is that this is part of a national trend. We’re seeing gun violence and homicides go up in cities all across the country. So this is being studied from a bunch of different angles. The consensus opinion is that although there are different types of gun violence and people engaged in gun violence for different reasons, what it really boils down to is for many people a sense of hopelessness. People see themselves as not having options, a lack of access to education, to employment, to economic prosperity, to family security. And quite frankly, the way that we increasingly resolve conflict in our society is through violence. And so all of these things are coming together in a perfect storm at a time when COVID is shutting down a lot of potential employment or educational or social interaction opportunities. And we’re seeing the results on our street.
Dave Miller: You noted that this is not just a Portland phenomenon, that gun violence and homicides have risen dramatically in cities across the country, but Portland has seen a bigger increase than most other big cities. Do you have a sense for why?
Ted Wheeler: I think there’s a couple of reasons. Number one, just in terms of absolute numbers, I want to be clear, we don’t have the largest number of shootings or homicides by even any close measure, but we do have amongst the highest percentage increases in gun violence over the last year. And in part it’s because we started with a relatively low number and in part, some of the issues that are leading to gun violence are particularly acute here in the city of Portland.
There’s a lot of people who are economically on edge. There is a lot of desperation amongst people who don’t feel that they can move out of impoverished circumstances or gain access to employment or education. There’s a lot of young people in our community who are engaged in gang activity. And so there’s a lot of people trying to break that cycle as well. And we’ve also seen an increase in domestic violence and an increase in drug abuse that is leading to some gun activity and criminal homicides where people go into stores, they hold up the store, they shoot. And then what’s somewhat new is just the increase in the number of shootings we’re seeing here in Portland where it’s two guys who have a disagreement and they decide to resolve that disagreement by pulling out a gun and shooting at each other. And we saw a very highly publicized case a few weeks ago in the Pearl district where that happened. So there’s a lot of different reasons for this happening here in the city of Portland.
Dave Miller: We got this Facebook message from Heidi Schultz when we asked folks about their experiences, she wrote, “My son is a student,” excuse me, “at the beautifully remodeled McDaniel High School on Northeast 82nd. There was a shooting incident this week, two blocks from the school at 11:15 a.m., 25 minutes before students leave campus for lunch. Cars were shooting at each other as parents were trying to organize to create a safe space for our students. Drugs, prostitution and gunfire within blocks of campus is unacceptable. We’re very scared for our children. It’s only a matter of time before something terrible happens. What should we do as a community? Mr. Mayor, please help us.”
I was struck, you said earlier as the mayor, you’re responsible for what happens in the city. How much responsibility do you feel that you should bear as mayor specifically for this surge in violence?
Ted Wheeler: I take it very personally and I have never shied away from responsibility or accountability on this subject. Look, Dave, one of the hardest things I do when these tragic shooting events happen is when it’s safe, I go to the scene. I often meet with family members who have just lost a loved one to gun violence and it’s one of the hardest and maybe one of the most meaningful things I do as the mayor of this city. And I hear the anger and the frustration and the sense of loss that these families are feeling and that’s why I’ve been so aggressive about bringing ideas forward to my City Council.
Dave Miller: Well, let’s turn, let’s turn to solutions because as you mentioned that this is the key reason we wanted to have you on. Back in February, the police bureau started a replacement, part of a replacement for the Gun Violence Reduction Team, which had been disbanded last year called the Enhanced Community Safety Team. You’re also in the process of setting up what’s known as the Focused Intervention Team. What’s the difference between these two Portland Police Bureau teams?
Ted Wheeler: Yeah, good, thank you for asking the question. So I directed the chief to create the Enhanced Community Safety Team, which is now fully deployed. That’s 22 officers, sergeants and lieutenants and their job is very specifically focused on following up on shootings to make sure that every case gets the attention that it deserves from an investigative follow up perspective. And the impetus for that didn’t come just from law enforcement. It also came from families who have lost loved ones to gun violence. They wanted to make sure that we have the tools and the resources in the field to be able to find those who are accountable and take them out of the mix.
Dave Miller: So that’s specifically about post-shooting investigations.
Ted Wheeler: Correct, exactly. The Focused Intervention Team, on the other hand, which also came from community, is the other side of the equation. That’s intervention and prevention, and that includes being out in the community, making relationships in hotspots where there tend to be a lot of these shooting type incidents. That means getting to know people who are potentially gang impacted or potentially involved in or impacted by gun violence and that’s just the narrow focus on the police. On the other side, through our Office of Violence Prevention, we actually invest directly in community organizations that work with people who are impacted by gun violence and their families to help connect them to education or job skills training, to help strengthen family and get people out of situations where they might choose to resolve conflict through gun violence, so we’re working at this from a multiple of angle, multiple different angles.
Dave Miller: As a reminder to listeners, the Gun Violence Reduction Team was criticized and eventually disbanded for lacking transparency and for disproportionately targeting young black men. And just to be clear, the community members who made this criticism, they were very aware that young black people in particular in this city are over-represented, both as victims and as perpetrators of gun homicides. But still they did not see the Gun Violence Production Team as the right response. How is this new Focused Intervention Team going to be different?
Ted Wheeler: It’s fundamentally different because the criticism and the audits that discredited the old GVRT focused just on the issues you just mentioned. There was a lack of accountability, there was a lack of transparency to the public and the media and there was a disproportionality in the way that the services were, in the way that the actions were conducted. What the Focus Intervention Team has that’s completely new is that it is community driven. There is a community oversight group that’s part of this effort that actually works alongside the police in terms of hiring, in terms of retention, policy establishment and it gives them the opportunity to both collect and share information with the public and the media. So the work of this team will be completely transparent. That’s what makes it fundamentally different from the old GVRT.
Dave Miller: The transparency, it seems a little bit clearer to me as you’re describing it than the accountability. How much teeth is this citizen oversight group going to have in terms of, say, reining in the behavior of police officers that they see as racist?
Ted Wheeler: They have the opportunity before anybody even gets onto that team to determine whether or not they are strong candidates, whether they are the right kind of people with the right kind of personalities and attitudes to be successful in this community environment. And so as we hired the first three lieutenants to run the program and as we hired the first two sergeants to lead this effort in the field, the Citizen Oversight Group actually worked alongside the police to vet those candidates and they’re working with the bureau right now to vet the 12-14 officers that are going to be in the mix as the remainder of the Focus Intervention Team.
Dave Miller: It’s been about six months since this Focused Intervention Team was announced and the bureau had some pretty well publicized issues getting officers to sign up for it. Can you guarantee today that it will be fully staffed and up and running by the end of next month? That’s the timeline that you’ve talked about in the past. Is this actually going to happen?
Ted Wheeler: We are on track to have this in the field next month. And so that is the goal that we’re working towards. The chief still says that we’re on track to have that happen by the end of next month, and I’m determined that we do this with a sense of urgency. As you just pointed out at the beginning of the hour people are dying as we speak. And so it’s very important that we act with urgency to get this done
Dave Miller: Just to stick on the question of accountability for one more second, you had noted that the community members have had some say in who can be on this team. But what happens after the team is up and running? What kind of teeth will they have to actually make sure that this team is operating in the way that the community says they should be operating?
Ted Wheeler: The oversight group is independent and they have the ability to go directly to the media if they so choose, they can come to the City Council and they will be asked to come to the City council and give public reports on the status of the Focused Intervention Team. And if at any time, they believe that there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way the focused intervention program is working or with specific members of the team, they have full license to be transparent about it.
Dave Miller: So the license they have is a kind of megaphone to you or to the media. That is, so the transparency is your, your understanding of accountability. But then it’s still up to you or the Chief of Police to actually do something about it. I don’t understand that.
Ted Wheeler: Yes, it would be up to them to bring it, bring attention and focus to it and it would be up to the chief or myself to provide the actual accountability. But I want to be very clear. The Focused Intervention Team is a community driven effort. This came from the community, particularly those who are closest to the community that’s most impacted by gun violence and that is predominantly the African American community and even more specifically it tends to be males, approximately age 30. So there is an overrepresentation of black leaders in our community on that community oversight group.
Dave Miller: I want to run another Facebook comment by you. This came from Eric Alexander. He wrote, “The police are letting violent crime increase to make a political point against minor cutbacks in their budget. They’re completely unmanaged and respond 10 times faster to a worker’s picket line or the Fred Meyer dumpsters than they do to actual violent situations.” Obviously this, this goes directly against what we’ve heard from people like Daryl Turner, the president of the police union who says we’re running on fumes. He wrote, “There is no way we can investigate thoroughly and correctly all these shootings.” That’s what he told, actually ABC News recently. What’s your response to Eric Alexander though? That this is less a question of staffing and more a question of police priorities?
Ted Wheeler: Well anybody who listens to Daryl Turner knows that he and I often disagree, and often strongly, and he has been a very strong critic of mine over the years. That said, I agree with Daryl Turner on this issue. The Portland Police Bureau is critically understaffed by any objective measure. If you look at cities like Detroit, about the same geographic area, they have over 2000 police officers. We have about 800 currently deployed. Detroit is concerned that they have too few police officers. If you look at response time with regard to emergency calls that come into 911, our response time is much slower than other similarly sized cities across the United States. And so, if you look at the specialty units that we should have in place, the traffic enforcement for example, or some of the other specialty units, those have been disbanded over the years because we just flat out need regular patrol cops out there on the streets.
Dave Miller: Are you interested in adding more authorized positions to the Portland Police Bureau or simply fully hiring the positions that have been authorized and that remain vacant right now because those are two different things and people have talked a lot about gaps just in terms of even hiring the people for whom there already is money?
Ted Wheeler: We are below our minimum staffing levels right now at the Portland Police Bureau and the situation will get much worse just due to retirements if we do nothing. Chief Lovell has indicated that at a minimum, to be clear at a minimum, we need 300 officers over the next three years just to hold even and so I will be bringing a proposal to the city council very soon in the next couple of weeks as part of our fall budgeting process that not only sets the table for a long-term staffing plan for the Portland Police Bureau in terms of annually getting us to where we need to be to ensure that our police bureau has adequate staffing. But we are also going to bring forth a proposal that’s called ‘retire rehire’, which means for those who have recently retired from the Portland Police Bureau, we have the option to incentivize them to come back and work for us in the near term to fill some of the gaps around patrol duty on our streets.
Dave Miller: This is a program that used to exist in Portland, right, and was ended more than a year ago because it was seen as too expensive if I understand correctly, the idea being that these are often higher level police officers who would then come back at that higher pay and they would also be able to collect unemployment or so I should say retirement, at the same time.
Do you have a sense for how long you could, you could bring back that relatively expensive staffing mechanism as a stop gap?
Ted Wheeler: Well, first of all, it is expensive and so I wouldn’t want to do it long term, but when I look at the overtime costs that we’re currently incurring as a result of staffing shortages, bringing back recent retirees is actually not too far out of the mix, just economically. The important thing I want people to know here, that is, even though I’m talking about increasing staffing for the Portland Police Bureau, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we still want the work of the Police Bureau to change. We need to improve the way we hire, we need to improve the way we train, there needs to be more transparency. So even as we continue to talk about staffing issues, we’re not going to lose sight of the important reforms that the community has been insisting on around transparency and accountability.
Dave Miller: This gets to the political question here because last summer in Portland and around the country, there were such strong calls to reallocate money, to take some money away from policing and put it towards social services or more so called upstream aspects of society, and now a year and a bit later you and many other big city leaders are saying, you know what, we actually we need more police officers, not fewer. How are you going to sell that to the people of Portland, many of whom I have two things in mind, both that the city is experiencing too much crime and too much gun violence, but also that they, many of whom don’t trust the police officers to actually make that better.
Ted Wheeler: Well, what I would say to people is you can do both. When I am talking about my vision for policing, I want us to have a police bureau that has the adequate tools, training resources and personnel to be able to do the job effectively. And I want that bureau to be accountable and transparent to the public it serves and my strategy for getting there, I call it the three R’s: its reform, its refocused and it’s re-staff and we’ve talked about some of the reform. For example, community-led efforts around the Focused Intervention Team and reducing gun violence, but it’s also about making sure our community oversight committees like the Portland Committee on Community Engaged Policing has adequate staffing. I’ll be bringing a proposal to Council in two weeks on that. It’s about transparency around body worn cameras. It’s about putting in a civilian Dean of Training, there will be a proposal for that in my fall budget process as well, so that we have civilian oversight and engagement around training. The refocus part is what you’re getting today, which is super important. We don’t need an armed response for every public safety issue in this community and that’s why I’m working with Commissioner Hardisty on the Portland Street Response and I’m expecting that in the fall bump, we will free up the resources to expand that program.
Dave Miller: When you say expand it. Do you mean expand it citywide and closer to 24/7? I mean, how big an expansion following the Portland State University glowing review? How big an expansion will you accept?
Ted Wheeler: It was a glowing review. And the answer is Commissioner Hardesty and I are working to expand it as thoughtfully as we can with both the resources we have, which isn’t just dollars and cents. It’s also where do we get the social workers and where do we get the firefighters to be able to create the teams? So I’d like to be able to sit here today and say based on, and it was a glowing report, the glowing report from Portland State University that we could immediately expand it citywide. I don’t think that’s realistic, but we are going to expand and you will see it in other areas and eventually, it will be citywide as we’re able to to put the resources in place to get it done.
Dave Miller: And the reason to not expand it is because it’s hard to find social workers and firefighters? I’m confused as to why, why wait?
Ted Wheeler: It’s well, it takes time. I mean when we staff up firefighters, it’s not like you put a shingle out there and you hire them two days later. There’s actually a vetting, there’s the notification process, there’s a vetting process and I’m sorry, it does sound bureaucratic, but it is just the way it is when we hire public employees in the first responder positions and there’s actually a critical shortage of mental health workers, not only here in Portland but around the country. And so I’m just being realistic with you, we’re all adults here. I’m not gonna promise that we can fully staff citywide in the near term, that Commissioner Hardisty and I are definitely committed to putting a proposal in front of the City Council that does significantly expand it in the near term with a goal towards getting this deployed citywide as soon as we possibly can.
Dave Miller: It was striking, if I may interrupt because we’re almost out of time, but I want to get this. It was striking last month when you and Chief Lovell held a press conference to talk about gun violence reduction strategy. Some of the things we’re talking about in this conversation today and then about a week later, county officials, the county chair, the sheriff, the DA and other folks. They held their own press conference to talk about the same issues. They didn’t invite you and it seems like you didn’t invite them to your press conference a week earlier. How much regional coordination is there right now to deal with a region wide issue?
Ted Wheeler: First of all, just to be clear, I did invite people to my press conference.
Dave Miller: But you’re saying you invited the county Chair or the DA to take part in it, to talk about your approach to gun violence or you said they could be there to watch?
Ted Wheeler: Absolutely, yeah. And I want to be clear, I absolutely support what they did and I want to be clear about what it was that they did. They convened specifically to talk about gun violence in East Multnomah County and I have no jurisdictional leadership over East Multnomah County. So I’m not sure why they would invite me to their event, but violence knows no borders and they were absolutely right to get together and discuss strategy specific to Gresham and East Multnomah County, and they have worked with us and participated on our efforts here in the city of Portland as well. This, this isn’t an ‘either or’, this is a ‘both and’. So I applaud what they did. I support them in that effort.
Dave Miller: Finally, I want to just turn briefly to a Portland Mercury story that ran on Tuesday. It said, “Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office has been discussing a strategy to ban homeless camping from areas of downtown Portland and to move those campers into a ‘high population outdoor camping zone’.” The story was based on an October 7 email from Commissioner Dan Ryan to you about a proposal that involved seemingly a large homeless camp. Can you tell us what this proposal is that’s been talked about within City Hall?
Ted Wheeler: Yeah. And this is the danger of writing news stories based on email threats. The homelessness is very complex and people are on the streets for a lot of different reasons. Some are there because they got priced out, others had health issues, others still have mental health or substance abuse issues. There’s a lot of women escaping domestic violence situations, there’s youth on our streets for a variety of reasons and there is no one size fits all solution. It is a comprehensive approach that will ultimately reduce the number of folks living outside in the elements. Commissioner Ryan has correctly identified one strategy which is the Safe Rest Villages and I applaud him and I support those efforts and he was letting me know through that email that his providers are telling him that they cannot do that full service model with more than about 60 people in a village, that’s not what I was proposing. What I was proposing was a completely different set of solutions. Even if Commissioner Ryan is successful in getting all six of his camps up and running, that will still leave thousands of people on our streets, living in the elements, living in squalid conditions, being exposed to victimization in various ways. And so my question was rather than just seeing all of these unsanctioned camps that I think are frankly, really inhumane, what if we did something in between? What if there were certain large areas that people could go and know that there would be toilets, running water, potentially laundry services, maybe access to transportation, if we can get TriMet involved, possibly navigation to other services and housing. What if we consider that as a solution? So my team is basically considering everything. We’re leaving no stone unturned. And ultimately, the goal should be to find compassionate solutions to get people off the streets so that we don’t have any unsanctioned homeless camps anywhere within city limits. That should be the goal and we should get there compassionately.
Dave Miller: Mayor Wheeler, thanks for your time today. I appreciate you.
Ted Wheeler: Appreciate it.
Dave Miller: Ted Wheeler is the mayor of Portland.
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