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Community safety forum focuses on bolstering police in wake of downtown shooting

PMG FILE PHOTO - Last month nearly 200 community members marched for public safety in Gresham.  For many it was a breaking point — gunfire rang out along Main Avenue in downtown Gresham as community members hunkered down in fear.

Around 9:07 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5, volleys of shots were fired across Second Street, near the eponymous 2nd Street Bar, as a group of suspects elevated a verbal altercation into a shootout. Police recovered 52 bullet casings — 9mm and 40mm — with parked cars and businesses being damaged in the violence. None of the shooters were arrested.

Officers described it as "lucky" no innocent bystanders were harmed. Community members fear that luck may soon run out unless something is done.

On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 9, about 50 people, many of whom helm downtown shops blocks from that shooting, gathered for a Public Safety Forum at the Center for the Arts Little Theatre, 333 N. Main Ave. The conversation, hosted by Councilors Sue Piazza and Janine Gladfelter, was a way to gather ideas and concerns about the state of public safety in Gresham.

"We are here wanting to do what we can to get things back to the way they were," Piazza said.

"It is going to take a lot of us — we will share this information and bring all your voices back to council," Gladfelter added.

Much of the discussion centered on ways to better support a dwindling police force, which the Gresham Police Officers' Association has described as a "catastrophic" situation. Gresham is down 20 sworn-officers. Those positions have been budgeted for, but the department has been unsuccessful in attempts to fill them with recruits or lateral transfers.

"This didn't happen overnight, I'm not sure what people expected as we traversed down these paths," said Gresham Police Chief Travis Gullberg, who attended the gathering.

That lack of officers has forced the shuttering of the Traffic Unit, Neighborhood Enforcement Team, Transit Division, and School Resource Officers, all so that patrols and investigations can remain staffed at levels that sometimes dip to seven sworn officers on a night shift covering a city of 114,000. The remaining officers, many of whom have declared a desire to remain in this community, are being hit hard by long overtime shifts. The department is overworked and understaffed.

"I can't get people hired fast enough because our city runs on a 50% (staffed) Human Resources Department," Gullberg said.

Gresham is also being outpaced in work environment and hiring bonuses offered by other law enforcement agencies.

Funding is a problem that has loomed for the past two decades. Gresham has one of the lowest tax rates in the state of Oregon, with only about $3.61 per thousand in property taxes. In Portland those numbers nearly doubled. While Piazza said the city hasn't actively defunded the police, departments across the board have struggled to properly operate without monetary support.

Currently taxes are only able to foot about 40% of the public safety bill. To make up the difference Gresham enacted the Police Fire and Parks Fee back in 2012, with it being doubled during COVID to $15 per month for single-family households, multifamily property owners and businesses. Meanwhile any further attempt by Gresham to pass new public safety property tax levies have gotten a resounding "no" from voters.

"We have been underfunded for 20 plus years, with no mechanism to keep up with growth," Piazza said.

During the meeting people cited variety of reasons for the spike in violence, including that Second Street shootout. There was talk of downtown bars' alleged heavy-handed serving practices fueling drunken spats, triggering an ongoing Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission investigation; a Multnomah County District Attorney's Office unwilling or able to incarcerate; increased gang activity with the dissolution of the East Multnomah County Gang Enforcement Team; the officer shortage causing a lack of proactive policing; and citywide funding issue that hamstrings efforts to improve the situation by throwing dollars at it.

"We have to find a way to pull it together," Gladfelter said. "When people are getting shot in our streets on a regular basis there is a problem."

There was talk of relying on non-sworn positions, as both a stopgap and future solution. That would include partnering with community organizations, bolstering the Gresham Homeless Services Division, and widening the scope of Code Enforcement. Gullberg also spoke about a new program in the works within the Police Department — community safety officers who would deal with low-level reports and community livability concerns. Right now much of the brunt of that is being taken on by the businesses and community volunteers.

Those at the meeting reiterated a need to support the remaining officers on the force, to prevent more of an exodus to the Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.

"We need to create a new culture of safety in Gresham," Piazza said. "We don't need the same-old government rhetoric."

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