Think Out Loud

After years of record highs, gun violence in Portland has decreased

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
March 21, 2024 11:15 p.m.

Broadcast: March 22

After seeing an all-time high for gun violence at the end of 2022, Portland saw a 22% decrease in overall shootings last year. In late February, Mayor Ted Wheeler attributed this decline to a community-city partnership known as Portland Ceasefire. Marcell Frazier is the director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention. Mike Myers is Portland’s community safety transition director. They have collaborated on the Ceasefire program and join us to discuss what gun violence currently looks like in the city and what is being done to address it.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. There were a record number of homicides in Portland in 2022. Those were tied to a huge increase in shootings after the onset of the pandemic. But Portland saw a 22% decrease in overall shootings last year. Portland mayor Ted Wheeler attributed this decline to a community city partnership known as Portland Ceasefire. Marcell Frazier is the director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention. Mike Myers is a community safety transition director. They’ve collaborated on Ceasefire and they join us now to talk about all of the ongoing efforts to prevent violence in Portland. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Mike Myers: Well, thank you, Dave, for having us.

Marcell Frazier: Thank you. Good to be here.

Miller: Mike Myers, I just want to start with a little bit of recent history. Can you just remind listeners what was happening in Portland in 2020, 2021, 2022?

Myers: Well, Dave, I think you and I talked maybe a couple of years ago on Think Out Loud when we just were probably in the emerging gun violence issues here in Portland. Across the country, too, this was national. So it wasn’t just the city of Portland but across the United States. In late 2019, early 2020, the country saw an exponential increase in gun violence across major cities in the United States. And it was the same here in Portland.

We had always had a very low homicide rate and then for whatever reason or multiple reasons that people can point to - I don’t think there’s any one reason or one driver that caused it - we’ve seen a here in Portland, a 200% growth curve in homicides, starting in early 2020 leading up to June or July in 2022. And a greater than 200%, like 230%, increase in gun violence or the actual gun-involved homicides in that same time. And just the magnitude of growth I think was just staggering here in Portland.

I had never seen anything like it. I still believe this, although I can’t substantiate it, we were either the greatest growth of gun violence in the United States or very close to it. And it just was such an impact here that we just had never seen anything like it before. And it required, I think at some point along the line there in 2022 at the absolute peak of gun violence, the mayor of the city of Portland, Mayor Ted Wheeler, to declare an emergency around gun violence. And that’s where we started putting the incident command structure together and just a more aggressive strategy to get this down to where it is today.

Miller: Marcell Frazier, as we just heard, gun violence rates went up either at the fastest rate of any city in the country or near the top. And then my understanding is that last year they dropped more than most. So, there’s a kind of hyperness to Portland’s rise and fall.

The thing that also stands out there is that even if we were at the extremes there, we’re still in line with the rest of the country in terms of just taking part in this overall wave and then decline. We’re going to talk about all of the specific efforts that you and others are doing in Portland, but it makes me wonder how much you think any of this is about Portland itself and how much we are just a part of a national culture?

Frazier: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to note that we’ve actually increased at a higher rate than the rest of the nation, but we also decreased at a faster rate than the rest of the nation, specifically, our peer cities like Atlanta, Denver and Seattle. So I think,

yes, let’s focus to note that we did increase with the nation, but it was at a higher rate, and we are currently decreasing at a faster rate than most of our peer cities.

Miller: Right. So those are the extremes, but the directions are the same. It just makes me wonder what is unique about Portland right now? And what do you think is going to happen no matter what you do?

Frazier:  I would say the effort of Portland Ceasefire and the implementation since June 1 should probably take a lot of the credit for the back end in 2023, the reductions that we’ve seen. I can’t speak on the overall uniqueness of Portland. I know our gun violence looks different than Oakland or LA. It’s maybe a little comparable to Seattle, but I think in general, I haven’t looked at the overall trends of what makes our city so unique, but I do know Portland Ceasefire is working currently in its form.

Miller: What is Portland Ceasefire? How does it work in practice?

Frazier: Thanks for the question. Portland Ceasefire is a gun violence focused-deterrence strategy. What does that mean? It focuses on the highest risk individuals who drive gun violence in our community. So that number is usually less than 1% of the city’s total population. This strategy is driven by a weekly shooting review. So every Wednesday, law enforcement will go over all the previous shootings from the seven days. They will identify these folks with risk factors and see if these folks will be a good referral for the Ceasefire Program.

Once these people are identified as good referrals for the Ceasefire Program, we then take those individual names to three coordination meetings the following day. We coordinate with groups like the Department of Criminal Justice, the DA’s office and local community-based organizations to see what is the best approach to mitigate gun violence with this individual. The goal of Portland Ceasefire is to reduce the likelihood that that individual becomes a perpetrator of gun violence or further becomes a victim of gun violence.

Miller:  If you’re talking about a very small percentage of people who have been identified to be at risk of perpetrating or being victims of gun violence, how much does that list change from Wednesday-to-Wednesday, from week to week?

Frazier: So it’s based off the shooters and who was shot. So any injury shootings or if you were injured in an injury shooting, you will show up in the shooting review, we will check your criteria to see if you’re a good referral. So, the seven risk factors right now are male, between 18 and 44, five to eight previous arrests, associated with an active group, has been previously shot, socially connected to someone who’s a recent shooting victim or prior criminal justice involvement including felonies or prior probation or post-prison supervision. So every shooting victim actually doesn’t meet the criteria because they don’t have those risk factors. Sometimes it’s just a random shooting like the wrong place, wrong time. But for the folks who do meet the criteria, we will then immediately refer them out to services the following day and that will be taken away by either our street level outreach contractors or our intensive case management contractors.

Miller: Mike Myers, I don’t know if anyone’s celebrating the 22% decrease in shootings, but it’s obviously better news than the continued increase. But the fact remains that because there was such a sharp increase for a number of years, we’re still well above where we were pre-pandemic in terms of shootings. But I’m wondering if you’ve heard anything from community members, if they have actually noticed a decrease, if they have said to you, yes, it seems like your efforts are working [and] I feel safer?

Myers: So I will say, Dave, nobody is celebrating a 20% decrease in gun violence. And you know this, every one of these shootings that involve a victim is extremely tragic. Oftentimes, it’s a terrible loss of life. Even if they’re not killed, these injuries are long term, very traumatic and very long term for recovery and some they never really recover from. And it impacts all of their family members around them. It is extremely tragic.

I would tell you the answers…that I think the question on general safety amongst the public depends on a lot more than just gun violence here in the city of Portland. A lot goes into it if someone does feel safe. It depends on where you live and what’s going on around you. I will say in the community that faces potential gun violence every day. And there are individuals in our community that are preyed upon and that are facing the reality of potential violence in their life, whether they are a houseless and vulnerable to firearm-related homicide or just violence in the situation that they’re living in. Or individuals that are somehow gang or group connected and how they’re involved. I would say they don’t feel safer. That’s a long time coming.

We are a long way away, Dave, from people living on the streets where they’re gonna feel safe. We’re a long way away from individuals that are circulating around gang group violence where they’re going to feel safe. I would tell you they don’t. And although we have some amazing stories, not just the reduction in homicide rate, that’s fantastic. We will continue to work on that, and our intention is to get that down to beyond pre-pandemic levels, that’s our goal, but we’re not out of the woods yet. We have a long way to go. Individuals that are still connected to this gun violence, when we talk to these individuals, it is a scary environment that nobody wants to be in. And once they’re in that environment, it’s hard to get out. And so we have a long way to go.


We do have some really good stories around Ceasefire where we have connected with young individuals who are involved in gun violence and we are navigating them out through intensive case management onto a different life, so we do not believe they’ll commit murder in the future. We do not believe they will get murdered or they will end up in prison. And that’s the goal. We are trying to save these young people’s lives and get them away from this path of homicide or potential homicide and get them on to a better path. And although we have great stories to tell around that, we are still seeing tragedy regularly occurring like other big cities here in the city of Portland.

And so like I said, general safety–people feel safe in their homes here in Portland–that may be one question. But individuals that are still connected to this violence, it is very personal. I would say the answer is no, they do not feel safer.

Miller: Marcell Frazier, I want to turn to one neighborhood in particular. Hazelwood in East Portland has the highest number of shooting incidents over the last four years. It’s not the largest neighborhood. So per capita, it’s even more striking. What do you see as particular factors that are contributing to violence in this one neighborhood?

Frazier: Thank you for the question. Something of note when we look at social determinants of health and marginalization scores, Hazelwood along with most other communities and borders in East Portland, they rate much higher for under investments economically, low performing schools, lack of walkability, lack of tree canopy cover, urban heat index effects, which are heat island effects, lack of public transit, lack of safe groceries. So there’s a lot of root causes that, then in turn, with 10 years of a youth experiencing these root causes or 20 years of someone experiencing this, they turn to other means, whether it’s to make money, whether it’s to solve conflict, whether it’s a form of letting out aggression. There are so many root causes, so we see the acute issue of gun violence happening at a tremendous rate.

I would hope that the listeners could look into some of the root causes. Look at the investments into David Douglas High School. Look at some of the investments into the infrastructure on 122nd, on Division, on streets like Burnside and Stark. Just look at some of the disinvestment that has happened to cause some of those root causes to just fester and get worse and worse. And I think not just Hazelwood, but all of East Portland is at a boiling point where it’s just been under invested for such a tremendously long amount of time that we are now seeing that the acute issue we’re facing there is gun violence, at least one of the acute issues we’re facing there is gun violence. So I think it’s just something to note that there’s so many root causes and it’s not rocket science. If you look at all those root causes together, it creates a kind of perfect storm to have high incidence rates of gun violence, unfortunately.

Miller: The city’s dashboards have a fair amount of detailed information about shootings over time and neighborhood by neighborhood. And so you can look and you can see that in Hazelwood, there were three or four shootings. It sort of bounced around those numbers in the last quarter of last year. And then in January of this year, that jumped up to 12 just in that one month.

We were talking earlier about how you respond almost on a person-by-person level and those weekly meetings after a shooting, but what do you do in a place-based way when there is a geographic spike?

Frazier: I think that’s interesting. It leads us into some of our work that our Safe Blocks Team is doing and specifically in Hazelwood, Kelly, Elliott, New Columbia, soon to be Powellhurst-Gilbert. But specifically, when we talk about those root causes, I think when you look at places like 122nd and Burnside, you look at what improvements can be made immediately to have a safer kind of environment that’ll create a less likelihood of gun violence, so any of those interventions–increased street lighting, increased crosswalks, maybe limiting one-way access on certain streets, maybe activating parking lots where bad behaviors are happening.

I think there’s some immediate interventions that could be done. And then again, they’re canvassing and community engagement to see what does the community think they need to stop this acute issue that is happening. So there’s a two-pronged approach. What are the immediate interventions, which is a person-by-person basis. Yeah, the folks that are doing the shootings are being shot, let’s get them immediate services. But with our safe blocks team, let’s get that team out in the streets. Let’s canvas. Let’s survey. Let’s see what the community wants to collaborate on to create a long-term strategy for the reduction in gun violence.

So there’s the immediate need where Ceasefire handles that and then there’s Safe Blocks who handles the environmental design of the community walkability, lights, tree canopy perception of safety, et cetera, things like that, that will hopefully change the long term trajectory of safety in that neighborhood.

Miller: What are you hearing from residents about what they want?

Frazier: Yeah. So our Safe Blocks program coordinators, they’re doing a long and extensive survey, they’re canvassing, they’re going to apartments. So I would say they are gathering the information. Last year was year one of the information gathering. I know the response hasn’t always been receptive to how long this project is taking. But I think the residents…

Miller: Meaning, people are saying we want you to go faster?

Frazier: Yes. And I will speak on behalf of my parents. They are right in the heart of Hazelwood next to David Douglas. They see acute issues. They see homeless tents, they see campers, they see campers get removed, they see them come back, they hear the shootings, they hear gunshots go off every night.

Miller: Do they say, hey, son, what are you doing?

Frazier: They do. They do actually. And we talk about the strategy, but I think the long-term strategy, they’re not looking at the data, like you said. The 22%, parents and residents of Hazelwood are not hanging their hat on 22% when they live in the most violent community in the city of Portland. So, yeah, it’s difficult, but I think the strategy is long term. We’re building out the foundation to hopefully reduce the root causes. But then we’re working on a person-by-person basis to end the kind of acute issue of repeat offenders or perpetrators.

Miller: Mike Myers, what do you think it will take to maintain a citywide focus on whether it’s gun violence reduction or violence reduction, more broadly, even if it gets less media attention, even if people like me happily cannot say there is a high, new record of homicides this year? If the media covers its issue less and if it’s slightly less on people’s minds, will the city maintain its focus, maintain its kind of emergency stance?

Myers: Well, Dave, I have a lot to say about this. I’m not sure we have all the time to talk about it. This is a whole another session for us to talk. I absolutely think that whatever strategy we’re putting in today and if it does end up…so far, it’s working right. And so far, I think we are outpacing the rest of the United States and decreasing gun violence in a major city. I have high confidence in our strategy. And Dave, this is right now under an emergency, and we have an emergency incident commander. We have a strategy that’s built for the emergency. If we don’t institutionalize this work and make this part of our everyday work that we do to keep gun violence down and keep violence down, then we will unfortunately repeat this cycle in the future.

It’s imperative that when you’re able to reduce gun violence or we’re in the middle of a fentanyl crisis or we have an emergency declaration around that. We’re managing the houseless emergency declaration. If we can get these things under control as a city, as beautiful as a city as Portland is, if we can get these things under control, then the key. I believe, just from municipal governance, you must keep it down long term. That means someone needs to be held responsible to keep, to manage this month-to-month-to-month, ongoing forever. This is not about rolling out an initiative, rolling out an emergency declaration and declaring success at some point and then moving on to something else. And unfortunately, I believe we’ve done that in the past. And I have made commitment after commitment to people that have lived here a very long time, who have been involved in gun violence problems in Portland in the past that have come and gone. And they say the same things to me over and over. We’ve been here before, we helped you and worked with you on your strategies to get gun violence down, we get it down and then you walk away and eventually five years later it pops back up. We have to stop that cycle.

Miller: Well, maybe this is a question that you think would belong in the next segment that you’re saying that this conversation is a part of. But let me put it to you this way in the time we have left. If you were the new city manager or the new mayor, on the soon-to-be-in-place city governance in Portland, what would your priorities be in terms of setting up the infrastructure or the bureaucracy to make what you’re talking about a reality?

Myers: Well, I think we definitely are on that path, right? We are changing the form of government. It’s happening this year. We will have a city manager in place or city administrator in place by January of 2025. And the deputy city administrators, the interims, will be selected here within the coming months or so. There will be one over public safety. And it is the responsibility of that deputy city administrator to make it their priority to make sure that they are responsible for maintaining the strategies to keep gun violence down, both from Portland Police Bureau strategies…to get a strong budget there with Portland Police Bureau and their focus intervention team and their enhanced community safety teams, working with the police chief and working with Director Marcell Frazier and Director Sierra Ellis over Ceasefire and the Office of Violence Prevention. To have not just strong budgets but to continue to focus on these strategies and never let off the gas on these things.

The minute you stop focusing on everything Director Frazier talked about today and the minute you let off, there’s a potential it will come back. And I think it’s going to be the responsibility of this deputy city administrator to make sure that that person’s held responsible to manage these initiatives and institutionalize the work, so that we’re not repeating these issues on a circular basis.

Miller: Mike Myers and Marcell Frazier, thanks very much.

Frazier: Thank you.

Myers: Thank you.

Miller: Mike Myers is the city’s community safety transition director. Marcell Frazier is the director of Portland’s Office of Violence Prevention.

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