On Monday, the Salem City Council convened a meeting with the Marion County Board of Commissioners and Salem-Keizer school district leaders to discuss the findings from a recent report looking at the sharp rise in the city’s gun violence. Shootings in the Salem city limits have doubled in the past five years, according to the report, which did not include police shootings or those that were self-inflicted or done in self defense. The report also found that at least half the shootings involved gang members, and that the number of teens 17 and under who were either suspects or victims of gun violence has doubled in the past two years. Joining us to discuss the factors driving the city’s gun violence is Ardeshir Tabrizian, who covers criminal justice and housing for the Salem Reporter.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Shootings in Salem have doubled in the past five years. That’s according to a recent report commissioned by the City of Salem. The report also found that at least half the shootings involved gang members, plus more and more teenagers are involved either as suspects or victims. Ardeshir Tabrizian covers criminal justice and housing for the Salem Reporter. He wrote about the new report and joins us now to talk about it. Welcome back to the show.
Ardeshir Tabrizian: Thanks for having me.
Miller: So you’ve been covering criminal justice for a few years now, what were the gaps in what was publicly known in Salem about gun violence?
Tabrizian: Well for one thing, we had no idea whether or not shootings were actually on the rise because there’s been very little data, and the data that we did have on violent crime said nothing about shooting specifically.
And the other big problem was that we had no real context. In the past couple of years police have put out so many press releases about shootings in Salem, and it appeared at least that teenagers were getting more and more involved. But the police almost never said what prompted any of these shootings. There’s no mention of gangs. It was as if these events were all just kind of treated as isolated incidents.
Miller: So why did the city commission this report now?
Tabrizian: When I talked with Jacob Burke, who’s a deputy chief with the Salem police, he said that they’ve seen violent crime steadily growing over around 15 years. And they’ve also dealt with several what they described as “high profile shootings” in the past couple of years. He said that every time one of those incidents has happened, the public has kind of come back and asked them what’s really going on here, what’s causing all of this violent crime? And the Salem police didn’t have the staff to look at the actual numbers and explain to people what was happening in a digestible way. So they hired outside experts to do it.
Miller: One of the biggest findings from this report is that teens are increasingly the victims or suspects in these shootings. The percentage has more than doubled in just two years. They’re not the age group most likely to be involved, that’s a little bit older. But the more than doubling is really significant. How did the researchers explain this?
Tabrizian: It’s important to consider that this study only looked at shootings in which people were killed or injured. Not shots fired into people’s homes or cars, for example, where no one was hit.
The report said that between 2018 and 2021, teenagers made up about 5% to 10% of victims and suspects of gun violence. And since then, that number has jumped to well over 20%. So it’s somewhere between doubled and quadrupled in the past two years. And for some context, the researchers also talked with police and school officials, and they said that adult offenders, as they described it, have been taking advantage of young people who are much less likely to get harsh punishments for things like stealing or crimes involving guns.
Miller: What did the study reveal about where these shootings are taking place?
Tabrizian: What we learned is that the majority of these shootings in the past five years have happened in Northeast Salem. It’s basically been clustered in this five mile stretch in the northeast.
Miller: But it only looked at shootings within Salem city limits. I mean, how much do we know about gun violence outside the city, say unincorporated parts of Marion County or other cities?
Tabrizian: We actually know very little about that. What we do know is anecdotal, and I can just tell you anecdotally that a lot of the shootings that we hear about are in unincorporated areas east of Salem. And in those areas, it’s actually the Marion County Sheriff’s office that responds to shootings. About a week ago, there was a rare joint meeting between leaders from Salem, Marion County, and the Salem-Keizer School District. And at that meeting, the Marion County Sheriff Nick Hunter said that those unincorporated areas in the east are probably seeing the same spike in shootings.
Miller: What did the researchers find about the connection between gun violence and gang affiliation?
Tabrizian: Gang members were involved in at least half of shootings in Salem in the past five years. But the researchers said that that number could actually be as high as 85%. And when I say gang members were involved, I mean, as shooters or victims or both.
Miller: But it seems, based on my reading of the report, that we’re talking about shootings involving people who are affiliated with gangs, but that the violence wasn’t explicitly tied to gang activity. So what’s the distinction there?
Tabrizian: That’s right. So essentially the report said that even though a lot of the gun violence in Salem involves gang members, the motives for these shootings aren’t always gang on gang conflicts where one group sees a rival group and just starts shooting. A lot of shootings were caused by more personal issues, like disputes over money or previous crimes. But still, a lot of those incidents involved gang members as shooters or victims.
Miller: Salem used to have a gang enforcement team, but got rid of it in 2019. What did that team do?
Tabrizian: So there were three officers in the gang unit before it was disbanded. My understanding is that the team was really focused on collecting accurate information about gangs in Salem so that police had a better understanding of what they were dealing with.
Miller: A similar team in Portland was disbanded at about the same time because of concerns that it was racially profiling young Black men in particular. Why was the team in Salem disbanded?
Tabrizian: Well, I remember the Statesman Journal a few years ago did a story about that. Police at the time said that they got rid of the gang unit because their budget was strained and they wanted to prioritize 911 calls. They also said that they investigate people based on crimes, and it’s not a crime just to affiliate with a gang. Another reason they said was that state courts in Oregon don’t have longer prison sentences for crimes that are done to promote a gang. It’s called the gang enhancement penalty, and you could see that in California, for example.
Miller: What did you hear from law enforcement about what it’s meant that that unit is no longer operating?
Tabrizian: When the researchers who put that report together talked with police, they said that losing the team made it a lot harder to collect and share that accurate information about gangs in Salem.
Miller: In Portland, homicides are thankfully way down in 2023 so far, after a few records setting years in a row. Is it the same in Salem? This report, is it providing data after a crime wave has already crested?
Tabrizian: That’s a good question. So you mentioned homicides, let’s start there. If you look at the homicide rate specifically in Salem, the rate has actually been pretty flat over the past decade. If you look at the actual numbers, it looks like it’s spiking up and down. but it’s really because the rate has sort of been somewhere between one and five over the past few years, per 100,000.
But as far as overall shootings, we’ll really have to wait and see whether they’ve already peaked. But I would say that that seems unlikely, just based on what we already know anecdotally. The numbers that we see in the report for this year go through only the first half of the year. And at that recent meeting, the juvenile director for Marion County said that the numbers he’s seen for teen gun violence haven’t changed in the last few months. So those trends are continuing.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for what you’ve heard from people in the community about the toll that these shootings, this violence, is taking?
Tabrizian: Well, the folks that we’ve talked to, and I would love to talk with more people, they’ve said that they just don’t feel safe anymore, whether it’s at home or at work. I talked with someone who taught for years in the Salem-Keizer school district and she said that she switched to Woodburn after two middle school students, I believe it was eighth graders, got into a dispute. One of them brought a knife to school, the other one brought a loaded gun. And she said that that changed her life. I also heard from a woman who lives in the Hayesville area, which is one of those unincorporated areas we’re talking about east of the city. And she started taking notes every time she heard gunshots. She recently counted 30 shots in less than a week.
Miller: What recommendations did the researchers make for how law enforcement should approach gun violence, especially involving gang members, since that seems to be either the majority or the vast majority of the shootings?
Tabrizian: With gangs specifically, they said that Salem police need to focus more on gathering information about gangs. They said the city and the county really need to come up with a strategy that brings together both police and nonprofits. They said that the people who are most vulnerable to becoming involved in violence tend to be young Hispanic and Black men. So they recommended that police keep that in mind as they’re deciding who to focus on when it comes to getting people connected to services.
Miller: At that meeting that you mentioned recently to go over the report’s findings, Salem mayor Chris Hoy said that he’d asked the community for the community’s help to tackle this problem. What can you tell us about that effort?
Tabrizian: The mayor said that he plans to basically pull together community leaders who will actually act on these recommendations and come up with ways to reduce shootings. He didn’t give any details about that plan. The only thing he said is that it would really be a community effort to prevent these issues, and it wouldn’t be the government leading that work.
Miller: What about the police chief, Trevor Womack? What has he said?
Tabrizian: When I asked him about the recommendations, he said that he generally agreed with the recommendations. He didn’t provide specifics either. But he did say that he thinks the report and the recommendations are going to help boost the work that they’re doing to cut down gun violence.
Miller: Meanwhile, as we’ve talked about before, the city of Salem is facing a really serious budget crisis. How might that affect the city’s ability to rein in gun violence?
Tabrizian: Well just for some context, the police department has talked for the past few years about how they’ve had to shift their attention away from non-violent crimes, like property crimes and theft, to focus more on specifically violent crime and fatal crashes. So at this recent meeting, the police chief said that the lack of resources that his agency has has really forced him to kind of consider their priorities. And so he said that if the priority is people being shot and killed in the community, then they’re really gonna have to invest in that area, and in the people who are shooters and victims, really at the expense of other things, unless they’re able to increase their capacity.
Miller: Ardeshir, thanks very much.
Tabrizian: Thanks for having me.
Miller: Ardeshir Tabrizian covers criminal justice and housing for the Salem Reporter.
Contact “Think Out Loud®”
If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.