In 2021, Portland recorded 90 homicides amid a surge in gun violence, shattering the city’s previous high of 66 set more than three decades ago.
The number of homicides in Portland surpassed more populous cities like San Francisco and Boston — and more than double the number of slayings last year in its larger Pacific Northwest neighbor Seattle.
Portland wasn’t the only American city to set a new mark for number of killings in a year. Philadelphia, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Lexington, Kentucky, were among the places that also saw record-high homicides in 2021.
Killings have been on the rise in Portland for the past few years. From 2019 to 2020, Portland had a sharper rise in killings — an 83% increase — than nearly all major cities. At the time, nationally homicides had increased by nearly 30%, based on FBI data.
City police and officials say last year’s increase — which disproportionally impacted Portland’s Black community — was fueled by gang-related arguments, drug deals gone array and disputes among people living on the streets. In addition, the situation was exacerbated by the pandemic, economic hardships and mental health crises.
In a May statement, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler warned residents that “groups” were traveling to the city from Washington and California to “engage in and advance gun violence.” In addition, Wheeler said “groups involved in this violence have issued an order to shoot someone in the next 30 days or be shot for not showing loyalty.”
Similar to the ’90s, Portland officials have said the city faces a rampant gang problem. Comparatively, police and residents say the boldness of shooters, their young age and the amount of shots fired surpass what they have seen before.
Portland Police Sgt. Ken Duilio said when he was an officer 30 years ago, Portland detectives were stunned if they found more than a few dozen bullet casings after a shooting. Now, police are recording multiple shootings a week with 50 to 70 shots fired.
The ages of homicide victims ranged from a 3-month-old boy to a 77-year-old woman killed in a hit-and-run rampage that also injured at least seven others.
At least 10 homicides involved people living on the street settling grievances.
“Many Portlanders no longer feel safe in their city,” Wheeler said in November, when discussing violence in the city.
More than three-fourths of Portland’s homicides were by gunfire.
The proliferation of guns also fueled a record 1,288 shootings throughout the city last year, with 385 people either wounded.
The intense pace of shootings has continued into the new year, with three people shot and killed in Portland during the first weekend of 2022 — a 43-year-old and his 21-year-old nephew and a 39-year-old man.
Portland’s police department has struggled to keep up with the violence, amid an acute staffing shortage and budget cuts.
As of November, the police force was 128 officers below its authorized strength. Since August 2020, about 200 officers have left the department.
As homicides surged, family members of victims and advocates who work with young gang members questioned the cuts and asked for greater police presence, along with accountability and increased social services.
In November, 2021, Portland was among major cities that added funds to their police department. City Council unanimously passed a fall budget bump that included increasing the $230 million police budget by an additional $5.2 million.
The added police spending includes signing bonuses for new officers, funding a retire-rehire program and bolstering recruitment with the goal to hire 200 additional sworn officers and 100 unarmed community safety officers by 2024 — which some advocates see as a meaningful reform win and a compromise to defunding police.
In addition, the police bureau’s long-awaited Focused Intervention Team, aimed at addressing gun violence, are now in training and expected to hit the streets later this month. The 12 member team includes seven people of color and three women.