Eight months after giving the go-ahead for a gunshot detection pilot project, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced Thursday that the city won’t pursue installing the technology.
“It really came down to resources: time, money, bandwidth and personnel,” Wheeler said at a press conference announcing new violence intervention and outreach programs. “As we lined up all of the different strategies we could use to reduce crime this summer and make an impact on gun violence, we concluded that the strategies that we’ve outlined today were higher priorities for right now.”
In the months following the decision to contract with SoundThinking, formerly known as ShotSpotter, it was revealed the company had spent more than a year fostering close ties with several members of the police bureau and leveraging those relationships to try and sell their technology to the city. Several large cities have canceled contracts with SoundThinking, citing poor accuracy and minimal impact on gun violence.
Wheeler said community feedback was split about 60-40, with more people against the technology than in favor of it.
Instead, Wheeler unveiled Portland Ceasefire, an initiative meant to unify the city’s various programs and scale up the kind of street-level outreach efforts that have seen some success in other cities.
“Portland Ceasefire will work to unify the efforts of the community, law enforcement and other government partners to engage directly with those at the highest risk of perpetrating or being victimized by gun violence,” Wheeler said on Thursday.
Flanked by Police Chief Chuck Lovell, interim director of the Office of Violence Prevention Sierra Ellis, and several other city employees who work in violence prevention, Wheeler said the city has spent $4.5 million to hire violence interrupters and implement a street-level outreach program.
Violence interrupters are people in the community with lived experience in gangs or with gun violence. The theory is that they have credibility among those most at risk of being involved in gun violence and are best situated to intervene and direct vulnerable people toward services and assistance.
The city is also investing $14 million over the next two years to ramp up anti-violence programs in middle schools, to provide intensive case management for the highest-risk people, and a violence interruption program that sends outreach workers to hospitals to connect with the victims of gun violence.
Wheeler said the city was working closely with “Cure Violence,” a national organization founded by an epidemiologist which advocates treating gun violence like a disease. The approach relies heavily on violence interrupters to stop the spread of the disease by identifying potential hot spots and acting as mediators to stop violence before it starts.
Both Ceasefire and Cure Violence have come under scrutiny in recent years. Last year, a study in St. Louis suggested Cure Violence had a negligible impact on gun violence there. St. Louis invested $7 million in a Cure Violence program that launched in June 2020. At the time, like in most big U.S. cities, St Louis was experiencing a record-setting surge in gun violence. Two years later, as that surge has receded, data in St. Louis suggests neighborhoods where Cure Violence interrupters were active didn’t see a larger drop in gun violence than comparable neighborhoods where they weren’t active.
Similarly mixed results have come out of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Chicago. In one Pittsburgh neighborhood using a Cure Violence-based model, gun assaults increased. Critics of the Pittsburgh program have noted it deviated in key ways from the Cure Violence model.
A 2020 report by John Jay College found Cure Violence and similar models had mixed but promising results. The report cited a number of challenges including forming relationships with a skeptical community, waning political support, finding and hiring outreach workers and the sheer magnitude of the task.
“Outreach programs may not be equipped to address the many obstacles facing their participants, including structural racism and systemic barriers to health care, employment, affordable and stable housing, and quality education,” the report said.
Ceasefire aggressively targets services to the small handful of people believed to be responsible for committing a disproportionate number of shootings in a city. Like Cure Violence, its record is mixed. In Oakland, where Ceasefire is credited with dramatically reducing gun violence, the program was put in place at the same time the city was being totally reshaped by gentrification. And in nearby Stockton, homicide rates declined after Ceasefire was implemented but rebounded after a few short years.
Wheeler pointed to a number of successes and indications the once breakneck pace of shootings in the city was abating.
After decisions last summer to modify the flow of traffic, increase foot patrols and improve lighting in the Entertainment District, the neighborhood has gone from seeing the highest number of shootings to zero, Wheeler said. Montavilla has also seen a dramatic decline, he said.
As gun violence surged in Portland and across the country in 2020, City officials began scrambling to figure out what to do. A string of new programs have been rolled out, starting in February 2021, when the police bureau launched a team dedicated to investigating shootings. Since then, the number of shootings and other crimes in the city has declined. As of the end of April, shootings are down 28% since the same time last year. Vehicle thefts have dropped 6% and vehicle parts theft, primarily catalytic converters, has dropped 42%, according to Police Chief Chuck Lovell.
It’s not clear what role the many programs introduced in Portland over the past three years are playing in receding crime rates. Violent crime and petty theft skyrocketed in Portland but also in cities across the country and the reversals are not isolated to Portland either.
It’s tough to decipher what percentage of the decline is due to improvements in the economy, people emerging from quarantine returning to school and socializing again, Wheeler said.
“At the end of the day…I don’t care,” he said, as long as they are doing everything they can in line with best practices and the trend is moving in the right direction.