Exasperated political and community leaders in Portland came together with representatives from local and federal law enforcement for a winding, hourlong press conference Thursday to acknowledge gun violence continues to rise in the city despite efforts to counter it.
The press conference came as Portland is once again on track to break records for gun violence in 2022.
“We’re already at 20 homicides for this year, 19 of which are gunshot victims,” Portland police Chief Chuck Lovell said. “For 2022, we’re averaging 21.9 shootings per week…If this trend continues, we’ll end the year with just over 1,500 shootings which would be a 14% increase over last year and a 266% increase over 2019.”
There have been 316 shootings so far this year resulting in 88 people being injured.
Thursday’s event was less than a month since the last press conference addressing gun violence. The Feb. 22 press conference came after a violent weekend in Portland that saw a politically motivated mass shooting targeting racial justice protesters, police killing one man who had allegedly shot at someone and refused to take his hands from his pockets, and a drive-by shooting that killed a woman and injured her young children.
Like February’s press briefing, the Thursday event featured representatives from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, U.S. Department of Justice, Portland Police Bureau, and City of Portland, all emphasizing the hard work their respective offices are doing to curb Portland’s slice of a national upswing in gun violence. The officials did not offer any new plans to address the shootings.
“Our gun violence referrals are up over 450%,” Deputy District Attorney Kirsten Snowden said. “Our criminal justice system is simply in crisis. We have criminal defense attorneys who are unable to accept new cases due to crushing workloads and we in the DA’s office are not immune from that.”
Snowden said the prosecutor’s office has reallocated resources to focus on gun violence, but the extraordinary number of cases has led as many as 15 prosecutors to quit.
“We have lost over 150 years of prosecutorial experience in the last year alone,” she said.
Representatives from the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization said their group works with various offices in city government to help address gun violence.
Lyn Tam, the group’s director of youth services, said they work with children as young as 13 through high school ages to create prevention services such as after school sports, dance and wellness activities in the hopes of intervening before people become involved in “anti-social behavior.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said the city has expanded partnerships with community groups through the Office of Violence Prevention, but he said the police remain the centerpiece of his administration’s approach to gun violence.
“We continue to focus our efforts to recruit new police officers and retain the best officers we have now,” Wheeler said.
Despite no indication of a slow down in shootings or homicides, Wheeler said the police bureau’s new Focused Intervention Team, the dedicated team to addressing gun violence launched in February as a replacement to the disbanded Gun Violence Reduction Team, was showing signs of early success.
In the new team’s first two months, they recovered 19 firearms and arrested 32 people, according to Lovell. Wheeler said the team’s performance highlights the need for increased police funding and a larger police force.
The police bureau has struggled to fill vacancies, which were approaching 100 as of the end of January. Wheeler said the 28-year low in bureau staffing was critical, leading to inadequate response times and an inability to concentrate on gun violence intervention.
He noted the bureau’s recruiting team has been ramped up after initially being cut in cost saving measures during COVID-19. Lovell said that while the bureau’s attempt to rehire recently retired officers fell flat earlier this year, he is holding out hope that a renewed effort targeting a wave of officers retiring in July will be more successful.
The factors impacting crime rates have long sparked debate among researchers, making effective policy to address crime more difficult to come by, a challenge Wheeler hinted at toward the end of his remarks.
“There is a trend in America where, if we see a conflict, we take out a gun and we shoot at it,” he said. “We are not very good as a society at resolving conflict in a deescalated, peaceful manner.”
The mayor said other societal issues likely causing an increase in gun violence are a lack of family security, a sense of hopelessness about the future, the huge number of guns available to the public and the tendency for one shooting to result in multiple retaliatory shootings.