A rise in crime during the pandemic across most of Oregon’s largest cities – including Portland – is abating, according to a new state analysis of preliminary federal crime data.
From 2021 to 2022 across the state’s largest cities, violent crime dropped a combined 8.8% and property crime decreased by 2.6%. The report, released this week, was compiled by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, a state agency that helps develop criminal justice policy and is a statewide clearinghouse for criminal justice data. The agency examined data in Bend, Eugene, Gresham, Hillsboro, Portland and Salem, and based its analysis on the FBI’s Preliminary Uniform Crime Report for 2022, which the federal government released last month. Oregon’s statewide figures could shift as the FBI releases data that includes the rest of the state later this year.
“There are indicators that crime is either plateauing or maybe beginning to come down after a pretty significant increase that we’ve seen over the past year to year and a half,” said Ken Sanchagrin, executive director of the Criminal Justice Commission.
Sanchagrin said the 2022 data suggests crime levels could soon return to pre-pandemic levels.
“It takes additional data points and time to pass before we can determine whether that’s a trend or not,” he said, “but at least it seems like it’s good news compared to what we’ve seen over the past couple cycles.”
The FBI data captures a portion of the violent and property crime in Oregon. It’s meant to be compared statewide and nationally. The FBI defines violent crime as rape, murder, robbery and aggravated assault. It classifies property crime as motor vehicle theft, burglary and larceny-theft.
“These are very specific types of crime,” Sanchagrin said. “If we’re talking about other types of crime that certainly have worried folks in local areas connected to housing or health, public order crime, those types of things are not included. These are more serious crimes overall that we’re talking about. It’s positive that they’re going down, but it also doesn’t include everything that certainly is part of the policy discussion right now.”
The commission’s report noted the decrease in violent crime was “largely influenced by significant decreases in Bend, Eugene and Portland.”
In Eugene, violent crime decreased nearly 18% and property crime decreased 15.8%. Like in Portland, where a quarter of the state’s population lives, there is a perception in Eugene that crime is worsening.
“Things like graffiti (which has increased) and panhandlers do decrease the feeling of safety among downtown residents and workers,” Eugene Police spokesperson Melinda McLaughlin wrote in an email. She said the city is improving lighting and adding cameras downtown “to both improve safety and the perception of safety with downtown constituents.”
At the same time, the largest increases in violent crime in 2022 were in Salem and Hillsboro.
Hillsboro Police Lt. Doug Ehrich said the agency is analyzing the new data.
“It is important to note that the city of Hillsboro crime statistics, even with a reported increase, remain well below most large cities in our state,” Ehrich told OPB. “We may be able to provide a clearer picture once our analysis of the data is complete.”
Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said the trend in Hillsboro since last year is not the direction they want to be going.
“Very rarely is there a single cause and effect. It’s a multitude of factors,” Barton said. “We’re seeing in Hillsboro, the impact of the addiction epidemic ...We’re seeing an increase in mental health issues. We’re seeing an increase in houselessness.”
While he and the police are aware of the trend, Barton added, Hillsboro is still a very safe city.
A spokesperson for the Salem Police Department, where violent crime increased 3% last year, said the data is of no surprise to the agency. Angela Hedrick said there are no obvious reasons why rates are increasing in Salem.
Speaking at the Salem City Club in January, Police Chief Trevor Womack said the raw number of crimes tallied per year has been slowly increasing since 2008 but that the picture looks much different when considering population.
“You want to look at crimes per 1,000 people,” Womack said. “When you factor in the population, the trend line is much flatter. So, you still see the swings over the years but, long term, over a 15-year period, much more of a flat type crime rate.”
Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson said the FBI data measures only some reported crimes.
“I don’t feel that the numbers are wrong, but I feel that what they are measuring matters,” Clarkson said. “As public safety professionals, we really have an obligation to look deeper into the numbers because when I look at my community and I look at what we’re seeing out there, there is always a difference between whether you are statistically safe by numbers and whether you feel safe.”
By comparison, complete state data show Oregon experienced an 11.8% increase in violent crime between 2020 and 2021, “which indicates that the concerning increase in violent crime during the COVID-19 pandemic may be reversing, at least in those locales,” the Criminal Justice Commission analysis states. The statewide data is based on reports from 208 of the state’s 235 law enforcement agencies. That’s more comprehensive than Monday’s report, which only accounted for Oregon’s largest cities.
The decline in crime was praised by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, who said he called the Portland Police Bureau, Gresham Police Department and county sheriff’s office about the “good news” when he saw the data.
“The last couple years have been really hard,” Schmidt said. “It’s nice to see that we’re making some progress. Things are starting to return back and hopefully this continues.”
Crime has become an increasingly politicized issue in Portland, particularly as homicides reached record levels in 2021 and 2022. Schmidt’s political opponents have used the reality — and perception — of crime as a cudgel against him, even paying for a billboard downtown calling Portland a “Schmidt show.”
Schmidt said the billboard “didn’t age so well,” even as he acknowledged the city still has concentrated crime in some areas.
“We still have challenges. This is not a banner that we have accomplished the mission,” he said of the commission’s analysis . “There’s still a lot of work to do.”
Asked for their thoughts on the new data, Portland Business Alliance spokesperson Tina Sillers insisted the new data didn’t capture the reality in Portland.
“We are confident that this data is not an accurate reflection of the level of these crimes afflicting retailers and store front businesses,” Sillers wrote, speculating that many businesses have stopped reporting break-ins.
According to the FBI data, violent and property crime decreased in most western states in 2022. Idaho saw a nearly 12.7% drop in violent crime and a roughly 10% decrease in property crimes. Washington, meanwhile, bucked the trend and notched an 11% increase in violent crime and a 7.8% rise in property crime. Nationally, the analysis described Oregon cities’ improvements as middling, with cities like Denver and El Paso experiencing dramatic increases in violent crime and Milwaukee, Wisconsin seeing its rate drop by more than 30%.