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Portland Police Hope Operation Cool Down Will Reduce Gang Violence

Gang shootings, stabbings, and graffiti tags are up throughout the Portland Metro area.

Operation Cool Down is an effort to reduce the violence. It's been running for 10 days now.

It began  on January 16th after a dozen gang shootings and three deaths in just a few weeks time. Kristian Foden-Vencil reports.

At the Emmanuel Temple Church in Northeast Portland, the body of 18-year-old Willy Lewis Butler lies waxy and still in a coffin. A parade of people, mostly young black men, walks past to pay respects. Then come his family and his little sister, Brenda.

Butler was shot in Gresham on New Year's Eve by a 17-year-old rival. But police say before he was killed, Butler executed another teenager that night.

His name was Darius Perry. Indeed, police say tit-for-tat shootings have ricocheted around the area since mid December. That's  when a member of the Kerby Block Crips shot another gang member at a funeral.

Community leaders, family members, just about everyone who knows a gang member has pleaded with them to stop the violence.

Preacher C.T. Wells even used Butler’s funeral to stress the value of forgiveness.

C.T. Wells: “The lie:  We shoot this one. And we turn around and get our revenge and then it goes back and forth and then we have all these mothers and sisters, nieces, nephews that we have to bury. It’s a lie form the pit of hell.”

After the service, people file outside. But the atmosphere is tense. Gang outreach workers and uniformed probation officers mingle with the crowd.

Sergeant Anthony Passador looks intently at mourners and reports to his colleagues over his police radio.

Anthony Passador: “Our main priority right now is just to try and ensure that the peace is kept around here. Obviously there are a lot of young kids who are upset about the death of their friend. And we’re not here to cause them any problems. We’re just here to keep a presence and make sure that everybody who wants to come here and grieve can do so in an environment that doesn’t develop into violence or confrontations. And just by having officers around, we’ve accomplished that.”

Passador says officers are trying to keep a lid on gang activity by gathering intelligence; suppressing colors and conducting out-reach efforts.

Operation Cool Down added 18 more officers to his team from Gresham, Portland and Multnomah County. They’ll be here until at least next month, when the situation will be reassessed.

One of their first orders of business is to find out why people are shooting at each other.

Tonya Dickens, of the gang-outreach group ‘Brothers And Sisters,’ says she doesn’t know.

Tonya Dickens: “It could be for many reasons like the older gang members coming out of prison. It’s the second or third generation. Young people are involved. I don’t know if it could be turf. It could be colors. But the point is our young people are dying at an alarming rate.”

A.A. Wells is  the Bishop of Emmanuel Temple. He says he has an idea why it’s happening — the city is a victim of its own success.   He says during the 1990’s, the people who tackled gang violence went out and built relationships with gang members.

A.A. Wells: “They had meetings, weekly meetings, at some of these places that these gang members go to. So if there was some situation brewing, they had somebody that they could talk to.”

Wells  says by the early part of this decade their work had paid off and gang activity dropped. But then, when budgets needed trimming, the relative lack of violence made cutting outreach workers a logical step.

So now when there’s a problem, he says, gang members default to what they think they’re meant to do — and what they see on TV — picking up a gun.

Rob Ingram directs the Youth Violence Prevention Office in Portland. He calls  the budget cuts  devastating.

Rob Ingram: “The kids that we work with,  they don’t understand budget cuts, they don’t understand funding cuts. All they know is the only person who cared about me, who was in my life, is no longer in my life, and I don’t know why, I don’t care why. They told me they would be there and they can’t be there anymore.”

So now, he says, the city’s chief weapon to fight gangs is putting more cops on the street. And that's what Operation  Cool Down is all about.

Rob Ingram: “It seems to have been calming down certain issues that we were seeing spiked. But as I said, unfortunately, it wasn’t something we wanted to do, so it’s difficult to call it a true success.”

Back at Willy Butler’s funeral, mourners disperse – some on foot, others in a big coppery Hummer with shiny wheels. Nobody wants to talk to the media.

But Butler’s two step sisters, Sharonda Ceasar and Otisha Williams, agree to a few words.

Sharonda Ceasar: “We just really want to urge this to stop. They need to stop. This is black on black violence, these are our babies, we just don’t want to lose any more of our babies. They were 18 or 19, they haven’t even experienced life.”

Otisha Williams: “Willy had a lot going in life. He just wanted to live long. He loved his nieces. He watched my daughter all the time he watched all the kids for us when we needed him, when we had to go to work. I’m going to miss him a lot.”

Butler had a son who’s about two years old and another baby on the way. His alleged shooter Ramond Lawrence is in custody charged with murder. 

Butler’s half brother, Latwan Brown, is also in jail, charged with shooting Darshawn Cross at a funeral on December 12th.

Operation Cool Down is scheduled to run until the middle of February.

That’s when law enforcement will assess it’s results.

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