Just a few hours into 2021, Isaac Matheney, 37, allegedly robbed a convenience store in Lake County. Sheriff’s deputies spotted Matheney as he fled the area, deployed spike strips and, after a brief standoff, deputies and Oregon State Police shot and killed him around 10:45 a.m.
He was the first of at least 35 people Oregon law enforcement shot in 2021.
That marks a small increase from 2020 when officers shot at 33 people, according to tracking data from the police watchdog group, Portland Copwatch. In at least four of the 2020 incidents, officers fired their weapons but didn’t hit anyone. Not so in 2021, when there were no police shootings without injuries.
Currently Oregon law enforcement agencies aren’t required to report use of force incidents to any state or federal agencies. That will change in the new year when a state law passed this summer takes effect mandating participation in the FBI’s National Use-of-Force Data Collection.
While the statewide total remained relatively constant, Portland Police Bureau officers shot eight people in 2021, killing four, a notable increase from two shootings in 2020 with no injuries. It marks the most police shootings since 2005, when police killed four, injured two and, in two other incidents, shot at but did not hit anyone, according to Portland Copwatch’s Dan Handelman.
Portland Police Bureau spokesperson Sgt. Kevin Allen said deadly force incidents get a tremendous amount of scrutiny and are among the agency’s most important investigations. But, he said, the low number of incidents means even small variations represent huge percentage changes.
“In 2015 to 2016 there was a 66% decrease (6 to 2), same as in 2019 to 2020,” Allen wrote in an email. “But if you compare 2020 to 2021 you see a huge percentage increase.”
Still, the increase in police shootings locally goes against a national decline over the past year. In 2020, police killed 1,021 people in the U.S., according to data collected by the Washington Post. As of Dec. 24, that number stood at 880 for 2021.
In Portland, the spike in police shootings comes amidst an increase in shootings generally. After police counted 388 shootings in 2019, that number more than doubled in 2020 to 891. By Dec. 21, police had counted 1,258 shootings.
Homicides in Portland have also skyrocketed. By early December, the city had surpassed 80 homicides for the year, an all-time record and a dramatic increase over the 57 homicides in 2020. But, Portland is hardly alone, and despite recent increases, its homicides rate remains far below those in many other cities across the country.
With nearly three weeks left in the year, a dozen U.S. cities had already broken their annual homicide records. By early December, Philadelphia had recorded 523 homicides, Indianapolis had 246, Columbus, Ohio had 179, and Baton Rouge had 137.
“If you compare historically Portland in the last 10 to 15 years…we are typically below the national average in terms of violent crime,” said Kris Henning, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Portland State University. “But we’ve gone up, at least in homicides, at a faster rate than most cities.”
In 2020, Portland had eight homicides per 100,000 residents. By comparison, Chicago had 28.6 homicides per 100,000 people and Memphis, Tennessee had 44.4.
According to preliminary 2021 homicide data analyzed by the criminal justice data firm AH Datalytics, only 10 other cities have seen homicides increase at a faster rate than Portland, including four in Texas, two of which saw triple digit percent increases.
The FBI’s 2020 crime data, released in September, found the national, year-over-year increase in homicides was the largest on record and impacted communities nationwide irrespective of political bent. Cities with populations over 250,000 saw homicides increase more than 35% while cities between 100,000 and 250,000 saw a 40% increase. Smaller cities with populations under 25,000 saw a 25% increase.
While Portland continues to see an acceleration in homicide rates, nationally things may be slowing down. San Francisco’s homicide rate increased slightly over last year, while large cities like Baltimore and Chicago held steady. Other cities like Seattle, San Jose and Miami experienced dramatic declines.
The thousands of homicides every year provide a wealth of data from which to identify trends, a task that is much more fraught with police shootings, which are far fewer in number and tend to be more erratic, Henning said.
“There’s a certain degree of randomness that you see from one year to the next,” Henning said, adding that four fatal police shootings this year in Portland represents a year over year increase, but it’s not clear if that is a stable increase that reveals anything about agency practices.