Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a gun violence emergency Thursday, which he said enables him to fast track his plan to reduce gun violence in the city.
“The Safer Summer PDX plan is the start of a two-year plan to reduce gun murders by at least 10% over the next two years by increasing effective community-based violence interventions,” Wheeler said at a Thursday afternoon press conference announcing the new initiative.
This is the latest in a string of emergency declarations meant to work around Portland’s fractured form of government. Appearing frustrated with trying to wrangle four city commissioners, each with their own political interests, Wheeler previously said he was no longer going to wait for charter changes to take action.
“The lives and livelihoods of Portlanders are at risk right now,” Wheeler said in his May State of the City address.
While speaking Thursday, flanked by community safety officials — including representatives from the Office of Youth Violence Prevention and Police Chief Chuck Lovell — Wheeler conceded that there was little new in his announcement. He said the emergency declaration will streamline the work various offices are already doing by bringing them under his office.
“Many of these trusted community partners are in the community already. What’s different is now they’re under a unified command structure,” he said. “We’re bringing all of these services together on a unified basis so that they can make quick decisions.”
Portland’s gun violence reduction programs are informed by a city-commissioned study of homicides between 2019 and 2021. The California Partnership for Safe Communities, a group that works with cities across the U.S. to reduce gun violence, reviewed all 117 homicides in Portland between January 2019 and June 2021, as well as all 314 nonfatal injury shootings between January 2019 and December 2021.
The study found homicide victims and suspects were mostly male, with an average age of 33. The majority of people involved in homicides were either white (about 45%) or Black (about 39%); while Black people made up the majority of all nonfatal victims and suspects. Black residents comprise 5.9% of the city’s population.
“We know that about 200 people are involved in local gun violence in Portland,” Wheeler said. “Rather than arrest and prosecute, our goal will be to offer each person at risk of gun violence a meaningful and workable plan tailored to each person’s needs to prevent them from getting involved with it in the first place.”
The Safer Summer PDX plan draws extensively from a gun violence reduction program first launched in Boston in 1996 called Ceasefire, often credited for having contributed to dramatic gun violence reductions in cities including Oakland, Cincinnati, Chicago and Indianapolis. But those reductions are often short lived, and cities that implement the program frequently see rates of gun violence rebound.
One component of Wheeler’s plan, called the Focused Investment Group, will have a $2.4 million budget and be tasked with intervening to “persuade those at highest risk of shooting not to shoot,” engaging at-risk youth, and investing in communities to “address environmental factors conducive to gun violence.”
The mayor tapped former government contractor Shareef Khatib to lead the Focused Investment Group. Khatib said the program’s money will be available to groups who may not otherwise get funding.
“We can award to much smaller groups who perhaps don’t have the capacity to write a full formal grant application,” Khatib said. “So we’re adapting to their needs much more specifically.”
Prior to arriving in Portland, Khatib led projects in Afghanistan and Iraq for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Khatib was a senior manager on a project in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, which was called out by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for having $590,000 in questionable costs, among other deficiencies.
Khatib said it was “factually inaccurate” that programs he managed were found to be wasteful. Asked for specifics after the press conference, he declined to provide further evidence or explain why the Special Inspector General was wrong.
Khatib said lessons he has learned over 15 years implementing “U.S. government-funded programs, addressing counter violence, and counter-terrorism in some of the most dynamic and challenging environments” will benefit Portland’s streets.
“In all of the programs I’ve managed, we have worked with community as the building block for resilience and resistance to those challenges,” he said. “The effects are surprisingly similar, regardless of the country in which you work, because in all communities there is resilience. There is pride. There is strength, but there is also a very weighted history.”
Khatib, who is British, said his experience abroad means he’s more inclined to reject circumstances — such as the disproportionate impact of gun violence on the Black community — which Americans may take as a given.
The city has scrambled over the past 18 months to find a way to address a sharp increase in shootings and homicides, a still poorly understood reversal of decades of declining crime rates. The uptick in gun violence started late in 2019 and has hit cities across the country.
Despite the recent increases in shootings and homicides, violent crime rates overall remain near historic lows nationally.
Also this week, the community oversight group working with the Focused Intervention Team — Portland’s newly formed police bureau team that replaced the disbanded Gun Violence Reduction Team — formally recommended the city adopt ShotSpotter, a controversial technology that uses hidden microphones to identify and locate gunshots in real time.
“The City of Portland should support and invest in the Portland Police Bureau for the use and implementation of ShotSpotter Technology as a focused deterrence tool as part of the overarching gun violence response strategy,” the group’s 61-page report said.
A Vice News story last summer found ShotSpotter analysts modified alerts to help police in Chicago and New York mold evidence to better fit police narratives. A study by the MacArthur Justice Center found “more than 90% of ShotSpotter alerts lead police to find no evidence to corroborate gunfire when police arrive at the location ShotSpotter sent them.” That same study cited a Chicago Office of the Inspector General finding that ShotSpotter led to a dramatic increase in stop and frisks.
The Focused Intervention Team’s Community Oversight Group report cited a ShotSpotter-funded study refuting the MacArthur Justice Center’s analysis. That study said the data the center relied on is insufficient because it “is not designed to capture and account for any subsequent police action resulting from an initial ShotSpotter alert.”
In its report, which relied heavily on ShotSpotter data and company promotional material, the oversight group said the technology’s success hinged on an ingredient which has been scarce in the city for decades: trust.
“The biggest challenge to implementing ShotSpotter technology is that the public must trust that usage of ShotSpotter technology will not be used to their detriment,” the report said. “The majority of critiques on ShotSpotter technology were not on efficacy, but on fears around how the technology might be used.”
The oversight group suggested additional training and data analysis might alleviate that mistrust.
The flurry of initiatives and new teams to address gun violence in Portland represent an about-face by city leaders after social justice activists notched several long-sought victories in recent years.
In 2020, during a nationwide uprising against police brutality, the mayor and city council disbanded the gun violence reduction team, which an audit found had disproportionately targeted people of color. Wheeler quickly backtracked on that decision less than a year later, signing off first on the enhanced community safety team and later the focused intervention team. Reviving those two police bureau teams effectively brought the initial gun violence team back to life.
Now, Wheeler appears poised to undo another hard won victory for activists who say Portland’s Black community is overpoliced.
In their report, the oversight group also recommended creating a “Violent Impact Players” list of “serial trigger pullers.” Less than five years ago, the police bureau abandoned its long-maligned gang affiliation list, which named alleged gang members the police kept through an opaque process with no way of getting off the list.
Wheeler said he thinks Portlanders’ views of policing have evolved in recent months.
“I think public sentiment has changed,” he said. “I think there is an acknowledgement that good policing does not necessarily equal less or no policing. Good policing still requires law enforcement professionals, but how they do their job also matters to us.”
That means transparency, accountability and diversity, he said. As an indication they were succeeding in that mission, hours before the Safer Summer PDX announcement, Portland police hired 16 new officers from diverse backgrounds, Wheeler said.
Over a month into summer, it remains to be seen if an anticipated seasonal surge in gun violence will materialize. Shootings in June were the lowest they’ve been in over a year. June also saw the fewest monthly homicides in the city since last September. And while month-to-month variations in crime rates are not trends, Portland is on pace to have just over 90 shootings in July, a dramatic drop from last July’s 139.
Analysts looking for reasons to worry, however, might note July’s nine homicides to date puts the city on pace for 14 this month, nearly matching a July 2020 seven-year high of 15 homicides in one month.
The length of the emergency declaration is dependent on the state of gun violence in the city, but the mayor said he is committed to funding these initiatives as long as the crisis exists.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect a more accurate summary of the statistics in the city-commissioned study of gun violence and that 5.9% of the Portland population is Black.