After two weeks of large demonstrations advocating for dramatic police reform, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is cutting two specialty Portland Police Bureau units focused on gun violence and transit enforcement.
The bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, a police team dedicated to investigating shootings, and the Transit Division, which provides law enforcement for TriMet, have been a source of contention for many in the community, who say both disproportionately target people of color.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty had been making a renewed push in recent weeks for the city to disband the two units, and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly had echoed her calls. On Tuesday, the mayor threw his support behind the reforms as well.
Wheeler also announced $12 million would be redirected toward communities of color — $7 million would come out of the Portland Police Bureau and $5 million from “other city funds.” The mayor said he would also be changing policies regarding consent searches for traffic stops, working to strengthen community-led police oversight bodies, and banning chokeholds. Portland Chief Chuck Lovell noted these chokeholds are already “banned as a method of control,” but are considered “deadly force” if used in a life-saving situation.
“This is our opportunity to reimagine every aspect of policing,” Wheeler said. “This is a time that calls for bold and, at times, as I’ve said, uncomfortable reforms.”
Hardesty, along with other activists, had long called for dismantling the GVRT, which had been rebranded from the controversial Gang Enforcement Team in October 2018. The gang unit faced criticism by many in the city for targeting the Black community and keeping informal lists of alleged gang members.
An audit of the Gang Enforcement Team’s work in 2015-2016 found the officers disproportionately stopped Black people and that they lacked data to show how frequently they pull over actual gang members versus how often they unnecessarily stopped other drivers.
The GVRT is one piece of a gun violence reduction program that is growing in popularity across the country. As part of the approach, community members and police target high-risk individuals with outreach services in an attempt to prevent violence before it happens.
The team is also tasked with responding to every shooting, collecting shell casings or firearms when possible, and scanning those casings into the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN) — a nationwide database of high-resolution images managed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The unique markings on those casings can be matched to specific firearms and used by investigators to generate leads.
It's not clear how effective these programs are at reducing gun violence or homicide. The team has been singled out repeatedly by the Black community for over-policing their neighborhoods. Portland's homicide rate has increased since 2015 and shootings have not declined.
“At the end of the day, they have a horrible conviction rate,” Hardesty said in a recent interview with OPB. The commissioner has been pushing the city to defund the program since long before she was elected.
“They couldn’t find a gang member if they fell over one.”
In his announcement Tuesday, Wheeler said he believed gun violence remained a serious issue within Portland, with the police reporting more than 400 shootings last year. Certain aspects of the GVRT, he said, would need to be retained.
“We still need that investigative function when there is a shooting in the city of Portland, so there’s part of this team we still very much need.”
He said the Office of Youth Violence Prevention, the police bureau and the incoming Multnomah County district attorney, Mike Schmidt, will be tasked at looking at a new way to address gun violence.
Daryl Turner, the head of the Portland Police Union, said he believed the disbanding of the unit was definitely “one of the biggest mistakes the police commissioner’s ever made.”
“The safety of our community is in jeopardy when we do something like this,” he said. “They are a vital part of the Police Bureau and now that is gone. That is going to cripple us in our ability to be able to stop violence in the streets of the city of Portland.”
He also said he believed the drawback of the Portland police from TriMet could limit safety on TriMet buses, trains and their platforms. The mayor said in his Tuesday announcement that he didn’t believe the change would lead to a less safe environment, as people would still be able to call 911 if they need police.
The mayor’s decision to pull Portland police from TriMet’s transit police similarly followed sustained community outcry. The mayor said he’d heard “loudly and clearly” that Portlanders don’t want to see Portland police officers being used for fare enforcement. Wheeler said the city will not renew the intergovernmental agreement with TriMet, which expires at the end of the year.
There have been calls in recent weeks for city leaders to take money from the Portland police budget and put it into the Portland Street Response, a new pilot program to have unarmed first responders answer 911 calls concerning people experiencing homelessness. Wheeler said, while the city has not yet prescribed where the new pot of money should go, he's "hopeful" it'll lead to more money for the program. He noted he had received hundreds of emails in recent weeks in support of the Portland Street Response.
As a reporter noted at Tuesday’s press conference, many of the changes Wheeler announced Tuesday had been anticipated in the run-up to the announcement. Asked whether more reforms are on the horizon, Wheeler gave a nod that more was in the pipeline, but said he wanted to focus on short term.
“What the community is saying loudly and clearly is that they don’t want to hear about incremental change,” he said. “They don’t want to hear about task forces. They don’t want to hear about legislation that’s passed a year from now. They want to know what is our level of commitment today.”