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Gresham residents voice ideas, concerns during in-person public safety forum

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - It was standing-room only Monday, Dec. 13, during a public safety forum to address concerns about the Gresham Police Department. Nearly 100 community members filed into a forum Monday evening, Dec. 13, to discuss growing concerns around public safety in Gresham.

The meeting, hosted by BerryDunn Consulting Group, a third-party organization tasked with conducting an organizational review of the Gresham Police Department, put forward a bevy of ideas.

Some spoke about funding, a lack of officers, and how to retain those at the department. Others touched on diversity and the void between communities of color and police. There were worries around cut programs, ideas about collaboration between law enforcement and social service groups, and suggestions on bringing in different types of folks to fill service gaps.

And while not everyone agreed on the direction for the Gresham Police Department, the overwhelming consensus was changes need to be made to ensure this city remains a safe place for all even in the face of historic levels of violence.

"This doesn't mean your police department is broken," said Michele Weinzetl, manager with BerryDunn and former law enforcement professional who ran the forum. "This is about helping them improve."

COURTESY PHOTO: MCSO - Chief Travis Gullberg committed his department to listening to all ideas and concerns from the community. No representatives from the Gresham Police Department remained during the forum, saying they didn't want to influence what was said. Chief Travis Gullberg gave an introductory statement, then left the room.

"We value your feedback and input," he said. "There will be many more ways to be heard in the coming weeks."

Councilors Sue Piazza and Vincent Jones-Dixon were both in attendance.

The structure of the only scheduled in-person meeting was open-ended, with community members voicing any thoughts around public safety. The vast majority did not share names when speaking about their concerns, and The Outlook will not include the names of community members who attended the meeting.

At times tempers flared between various groups with differing opinions, toward the moderators, and the city councilors in attendance, but overall the forum remained constructive.

"It's not my job to pigeonhole anyone down a certain lane or way of thinking," Weinzetl said. "This is about bringing the community together and giving them an influential voice over the police that serve them."

And the opportunity for input and to have your voice heard didn't end on Monday. BerryDunn has created an online portal, bit.ly/3DWbHyO, for community members to follow along with the estimated seven-month review process. There are opportunities to post comments — 110 residents have done so already — and all documents, like a recap from the public safety forum, will be posted to the site.

Staffing woes

PMG FILE PHOTO - Many community members were upset about cutting the Neighborhood Enforcement Team. The major concern for a majority at the public safety forum was the staffing woes at the Gresham Police Department.

"The officers we have right now are our most precious resource," said one person attending the meeting.

The Gresham Police Department is trying to recruit new officers to account for being down 10% of sworn-officers, or 12 full-time positions, after retirements, departures and officers stepping away from law enforcement all together.

People were worried about the city not being competitive in hiring new officers, and the lengthy process — about a year and a half — to properly train a sworn-officer. The suggested better pay/incentives to keep officers from leaving.

The staffing shortage has also led to cuts to popular programs like the Gresham Traffic Unit, Neighborhood Enforcement Team and local participation in the regional Transit Division. The restructuring, which will be finalized on Jan. 1, points to a trend in local law enforcement — focusing on violent and major crimes while pushing traffic violations, property crime and neighborhood livability to the side. In Gresham a Special Victims Investigation Unit has been created to deal with local shootings.

The attendees of the meeting were most gutted over losing the NET team. One speaker said living in a low-income neighborhood meant the NET team were the only ones addressing livability concerns that sworn-officers or city hall staff don't have time to deal with.

One of the main goals for BerryDunn is identifying the number of officers needed at the Gresham Police Department to properly serve the community. Right now the department has about 30 to 40 specialty units, like the NET team, but with the shortage the BerryDunn experts said most law enforcement will cut down to focus on patrol and investigations.

"Every officer (our team) have encountered so far we would hire for any of our own agencies," Weinzetl said. "You are fortunate for the good folks you have."

With the potential delays in hiring more sworn-officers, community members suggested alternatives.

There was talk of increasing the Gresham Police Cadet program and the Gresham Citizen Volunteers in Policing, with greater duties and more members; bringing back retired officers in smaller, part-time roles; creating a Community Safety Officer program that would consist of unarmed, non-sworn-officers that could take on the former duties of the NET team or address livability concerns; or forming a Reserve Officer Program to fill in gaps from unexpected departures of retirements.

Others suggested using non-police to address concerns, shifting duties away from an understaffed department. That would include contracting with social services or nonprofit organizations.

During the meeting one woman asked BerryDunn how much its consulting work was costing the city — $96,000.

"Well there goes one and a half officers," quipped another audience member.

Others called out a lack of support from city leadership, specifically mayor and council, toward local officers.

"We hear from our city leaders, 'We care about safety,' but their actions aren't backing that up," said another attendee.

"Our officers need to be supported by policy makers," called out another.

Failure to serve

PMG FILE PHOTO - Local law enforcement is under a microscope as community members shared what can be done to improve public safety in Gresham. During the meeting several folks spoke about instances when they had felt let down or unsafe because of the police.

One woman relayed a story of a neighbor's dog violently attacking her daughter and dog while on a walk. Despite the pet being bloodied, and a call to 911, it took three to four days for the police to respond to the incident.

Another self-described senior resident called 911 about an aggressive neighbor wielding a gun and threatening to kill her. The person said during the call to the police she was allegedly asked, "How she knew it was really a gun," and to call code enforcement. She said no officers ever came out.

One person spoke about the concerns of the Black community when it came to interacting with the police, and worries around systemic decision making and policies within the city of Gresham. They referenced the findings of a third-party study by Barran Liebman LLP earlier this year that described apathy and resistance to police trainings and other teachings around fostering a diverse and welcoming atmosphere within Gresham.

Overall the report found that while some were supportive vocally or through actions of diversity, equity and inclusion measures, there was resistance and refusal to accept the need for such programs within the Gresham Police Department. The investigation uncovered denial, resistance to change, scorn and ridicule, and outrage from officers and former department leadership.

"This room doesn't represent the diversity within our community," said a speaker in reference to a predominately older, white-appearing crowd.

Another person recommended bringing back programs that would keep youth out of gangs and violence, like Midnight Basketball or mentorship pairings.

The conversation touched on the issue of school resource officers — referencing the recent reassignment of the SRO stationed at Gresham High School after protests from students and allegations of misconduct. On Nov. 4 about a dozen Gresham High youths, with written support from many more, voiced their complaints outside the district office. "Our voices have continuously been silenced, and we have addressed that our school is not a safe place for students of color, numerous times, with multiple administrations and people in charge," said Stasia, a Gresham junior, to Oregon Public Broadcasting, a Pamplin Media Group news partner.

The students spoke of being "targeted, harassed, intimidated, discriminated against and profiled" by the school resource officer. A few days later, the Gresham-Barlow Superintendent James Hiu announced the SRO would be moved to district-level responsibilities. It is unclear if the same will be done at Barlow High, or if the Reynolds and Centennial School Districts will follow suit. Gresham-Barlow School District reaffirmed its commitment to the SRO program and the role it plays in school safety.

The Gresham Police Department has already partnered with the Gresham-Barlow School District to implement a Youth/Police Focus Group.

"Some of these conversations are hard, but if we don't have them we run the risk of maintaining the status quo," Weinzetl said.

Virtual Forum

If you missed the in-person meeting, there is another chance to share your opinions and concerns about the Gresham Police Department. A virtual public safety forum will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 5. Learn more at bit.ly/3DWbHyO

Legislature passes $2 million for gun violence prevention in East County

A bill was passed in Salem Monday, Dec. 13, that provides $2 million in funding for gun violence prevention in East Multnomah County.

Senate Bill 5561 offers an investment to the city of Gresham and local community partners in creating and implementing the East Metro Outreach, Prevention and Intervention program that will address rising youth violence by investing in mentoring and culturally responsive youth programming.

"These investments in our children are fundamental to their growth and development," said Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham. "By providing youth with the resources, education, treatment, and guidance they need to feel seen and supported, we are creating a better future."

Historic spikes in gun violence in East Multnomah County spurred the legislation.

"The East Metro Outreach, Prevention and Intervention Program is critical for communities in East Multnomah County," said Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale. "This investment will bring resources to some of the most diverse communities in Oregon in a concentrated effort to reduce violence with upstream initiatives."

The bill passed the House 52-3, following a 26-2 vote in the Senate.


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