Incidents of gun violence in Portland were up in May over last year, including a shooting that occurred last week at the
Alberta arts gathering. Overall, police say there have been 67 incidents this year, compared with 52 at this time last year. Police are investigating these shootings as gang-related and Police Chief Larry O'Dea has announced he's
s to the department's now 24-person Gang Enforcement Team.
That's welcome news to Captain Matthew Wagenknecht, head of the Portland Police Bureau's Tactical Operations Division, which includes the Gang Enforcement Team.
"We rely a lot on the street officers, who are the first responders to everything that we get. They evaluate the situation," Wagenknecht says. "They determine, based on witness information, location – if it's a known hangout or residence of a gang-affiliated person – or if we have somebody in custody that we know to be a gang member they will notify us and respond to take the investigation"
The shooting incident during Last Thursday last week inflamed racial tensions after two local activists were arrested. Marcus Cooper and Loren Ware say they were helping the victim, but police say they were interfering with the investigation. The incident highlighted concerns that police — in Portland and elsewhere — practice racial profiling and target young, black men.
Wagenknecht says there are extensive checks and balances to ensure that the gang unit avoids this growing concern.
"We have processes that we put it through," Wagenknecht says. "We have certain criteria that we actually look at ... We have several checkpoints in place to ensure that doesn't happen."
Wagenknecht says that the task force will notify gang suspects while they are being investigated, giving the person a chance to clear their name if allegations are false.
"We send the person the notification that, 'Hey right now, based on statements that you made to police officers, maybe tattoos that you have affiliating you with gang members, or pictures that you have with other gang members, we're looking at you as a gang member,'" Wagenknecht says. "That gives the person the right and opportunity to recant or rebut that and ask for a hearing to be able to explain why that is or why they should not be labeled as a gang member."
According to him, adding new officers to the task force will let the police build better relationships with the people in the communities in which they work. These relationships are in constant need of maintenance, and Wagenknecht believes that it can always get better.
"And that's not only with the African American community or the youths, but with everybody," Wagenknecht says. "Part of our strategy is to build relationships within the community so we can have officers out there who make contact with not only potential criminal elements but with business people and residents in the area so that they understand and know us at a personal level and feel comfortable making reports and calling in incidents."
The Portland Police Bureau maintains a list of potential gang suspects that officers use to cross check between cases and search for new ways to prevent gang violence.
"The reason we go to these investigations is oftentimes they are tied to each other, through physical evidence or from witness statements," Wagenknecht says. "[The list] helps us tie all these together, and if we do catch an individual or make an arrest, we can arrest and charge them with not only the initial charge but all the other ones that are tied with it."
However, Wagenknecht is emphatic that the Gang Enforcement Team can't do this alone. They don't have the manpower or the resources to be everywhere at once, and he says he's calling on the community to help keep watch and protect everybody. He believes that this vigilance can help keep young people out of gangs and the whole community safer.
"We're only one prong on the spoked wheel, we need help," Wagenknecht says. "We need everybody's eyes and ears to be socially aware and to be able to trust us so that we can actually not only conduct the investigations but do the prosecutions and get people back on the right track."