Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced a new gun violence reduction initiative last week that is big on ambition but short on specifics.

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In a statement, Wheeler said the Safer Summer PDX team, led by a former government contractor named Shareef Khatib with experience in international development, will work to address an anticipated uptick in shootings over the summer. The other team members, also new hires, have backgrounds in communications and youth outreach. The announcement provided no specifics on what the team would do.

There have been 670 shootings in Portland so far in 2022 and 41 homicides, according to the Portland Police Bureau. At this time last year, there had been 582 shootings and 49 homicides. City leaders have been struggling to address escalating gun violence, which mirrors similar increases in gun violence across the country. But the latest initiative, which will be overseen by the new Community Safety Division, is so far little more than a team of three people with the vague but important goal of reducing summer gun violence.

Numbers mark areas where law enforcement collected bullet casings after a fatal shooting in Northeast Portland in 2021.

Numbers mark areas where law enforcement collected bullet casings after a fatal shooting in Northeast Portland in 2021.

Courtney Sherwood / OPB

“Their goal is to work as our ceasefire team to help develop concrete, immediate strategies here in the city of Portland, to start reducing the gun violence that we’re seeing on our street,” Wheeler said in a statement. Wheeler also said he would soon be declaring a state of emergency but did not elaborate on what that would entail.

Wheeler did not answer questions asking for more details about the new gun violence initiative.

“We hope to have an announcement in the next two weeks that will include more specific details,” said Rich Chatman, Community Safety Division strategic communications manager.

Before getting hired to lead Safer Summer PDX, Khatib spent more than 12 years working as a government contractor for the oft-criticized U.S. Agency for International Development, four of them in Iraq and Afghanistan on redevelopment projects widely seen as failures.

Now, Khatib – a former senior manager of a program dinged for questionable spending – is taking the helm of Portland’s latest gun violence reduction initiative, a $2.4 million program. A video Wheeler released last week identified Khatib as the “ceasefire czar.”

Related: Gun violence reduction programs struggle with long-term success

Ceasefire is a gun-violence-reduction program based on the idea that even in cities with high homicide rates, the number of people committing acts of violence is actually very low. Proponents argue that gun violence can be dramatically reduced by identifying and targeting social services at those people most likely to commit violence.

But the program’s track record is spotty. Often, cities that implement a ceasefire program see reductions in the near term but then gun violence rates rebound in the long term. In the past two years, even cities with established ceasefire programs have seen their homicide and shooting rates increase along with the rest of the country, or have seen those rates remain mostly unchanged. In Chicago and Detroit, overall homicides are down slightly in 2022, but in Chicago, the number of women shot and killed has increased 55%.

Wheeler did not respond to questions asking how Khatib’s previous experience working in countries experiencing insurgencies, civil wars and sectarian violence was relevant to gun violence in Portland.

“This is how I try to explain it to everyone, what we’re doing and how it’s similar,” Khatib told Wheeler in a video released by Wheeler’s office. “Communities who have value and pride and immense amounts of resources, who are just either disempowered or overlooked or there have been some elements of erosion in that. And it’s tapping into those strengths, reconstituting the communities and understanding what assets they have that can be built upon to address the problems they are facing. And that’s the same, whether it be Afghanistan or Mozambique or probably Portland too.”

“The skill set is the same,” Wheeler responded.

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Since 2008, Khatib has worked in various roles at two of the top USAID contract recipients implementing U.S. development projects overseas. He has worked on projects in Afghanistan, Iraq, Malaysia, Nigeria and Sudan, according to his LinkedIn profile.

In Afghanistan, Khatib worked for the international development company Development Alternatives Inc., designing and leading a $151 million, USAID-funded Afghanistan Stabilization Initiative program in the eastern part of the country.

The program awarded grants to local organizations in eastern Afghanistan with a goal of permanently stabilizing the targeted districts. It did not succeed.

An audit of the stabilization initiative by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction encompassing the time Khatib was in senior management, found “$590,000 in questionable program costs,” and found that the program he oversaw spent less than half of the required amount on reconstruction projects.

“Despite nearly 3 years of program activity, none of DAI’s target districts have transitioned to the ‘build’ phase of the COIN strategy,” the audit reads, referring to the U.S. military’s “clear, hold, build” counter insurgency doctrine.

The area in Afghanistan where Khatib worked included Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktika and Wardak provinces, home to some of the bloodiest battles of the United States’ 20-plus year attempt to occupy and democratize the country. But programs like the one Khatib worked for made little difference in the region. Instead, the Taliban, Haqqani network, and regional Islamic State chapter remained active and influential throughout the U.S. occupation.

“We found the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context,” the special inspector general wrote in a 2018 paper on lessons learned from stabilization operations in Afghanistan. “Successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians.”

After Afghanistan, Khatib went to work in another failed U.S. overseas endeavor. In Iraq in 2018, Khatib worked for government contractor Chemonics as a regional manager for the Iraq Community Resilience Initiative, a USAID-led program to support displaced people returning to Northern Iraq after the Islamic State’s 2017 defeat.

At the same time USAID was working to rebuild community in Northern Iraq, the Iraqi military, supported by the U.S.-led Global Coalition against ISIS, was waging its own war on terror against predominantly Sunni men from areas ISIS had occupied.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, “Iraqi forces arbitrarily detained, ill-treated and tortured, and disappeared mostly Sunni men from areas where ISIS was active and failed to respect their due process and fair trial rights.”

Like stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, the Iraq Community Resilience Initiative saw only minimal success in the face of an estimated 1.2 million people still displaced by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Iraqi government’s own violence against displaced Sunnis. Among the $12 million program’s successes, it removed the rubble of 66 homes in Hamdaniya, repaired 65 water pipe leaks and hosted two concerts in Mosul to “promote positive interaction between the diverse communities in the city in addition to promoting solidarity for a message of peaceful coexistence.”

Addressing crime in Portland

Theories abound for why crime has increased across the country in recent years after decades of steady decline. Possible explanations are far-ranging and include a wave of gun purchases in 2020 or the slow-burn impacts of the economic downturn a decade ago.

This most recent partially unveiled program comes close on the heels of multiple other initiatives over the past 16 months, all meant to curb increased gun violence and homicides in the city. Last February, at Wheeler’s direction, the Portland Police Bureau created the Enhanced Community Safety Team, a unit that investigates shootings and is composed of three sergeants, 12 officers and six detectives.

Four months later, in June 2021, Wheeler announced the Focused Intervention Team, a group devoted to proactively interrupting cycles of retaliatory violence. That team, made up of 12 officers, two sergeants, and a lieutenant, started operating in January 2022.

In September 2021, Multnomah County officials announced a $2.8 million initiative aimed at tackling the root causes of gun violence. The money was earmarked to create a seven-person behavioral health gun violence response team and hire two investigators and four prosecutors in the district attorney’s office. The funds are also meant to establish a call-in program directed at people perceived to be the most likely to participate in gun violence.

District Attorney Mike Schmidt has filled all six new positions. The county did not immediately respond to questions asking the status of the other programs.

In February 2022, the Portland Office of Violence Prevention announced it had awarded $600,000 in gun violence reduction grants to five Portland organizations.

In the 16 months since the first of these programs began, there have been 121 homicides and 1,882 shootings in Portland, an increase over the 16 months prior.

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