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County officials hold a press conference Thursday to announce new initiatives to reduce gun violence.

COURTESY PHOTO: KOIN 6 NEWS - Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt at the Thursday press conference.Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt and Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese agree that the Portland Police Bureau needs more officers.

Mayor Ted Wheeler announced on Sept. 17 that he will ask the Portland City Council to rehire 80 officers eligible to retire this year. Schmidt and Reese agreed the bureau is underfunded during a Thursday, Sept. 23, press conference held to announce new county initiatives to reduce gun violence.

In response to reporters' question, Schmidt and Reese both said Portland police are struggling to investigate shootings because of the existing staffing shortage.

"We are not getting the investigations we need (to make cases)," Schmidt said.

"I believe the Portland Police Bureau is underfunded and under-resourced," Reese said.

Chair Deborah Kafoury and other county officials also spoke at the press conference. Announced initiative include $1 million for the DA's office to hire two more investigators and four more prosecutors to pursue gun-related cases. The county commission will consider the request on Thursday, Sept. 30.

Schmidt's office recently posted an online "dashboard" that documents gun-related charges filed over the past three years. It shows that through Aug. 13, his offices has filed 285 gun-related cases this year, up from 152 in 2020 and 51 in 2019. Schmidt said the highest percent of completed cases were filed in 2019, however, because COVID-19 restrictions have complicated more recent prosecutions.

The county has already agreed to spend $2.8 million to fund a seven-person behavioral health gun violence response team. It will be a combination of mental health clinicians and people with lived experience. The team will be made up of members from the Latino, African immigrant and Black communities.

"The old war on crime approach to public safety, which leans almost exclusively on law enforcement, prosecution and punishment is both ineffective and causes profound long term harm especially on communities of color," Kafoury said.

Gun violence surging

Tracking the effectiveness of the county's initiatives may be difficult, however. No single agency records all shootings and gun-related killings in the country. In Portland and Gresham, they are compiled by the police departments. But in Fairview, Maywood Park, Troutdale, Wood Village and unincorporated Multnomah County, they are compiled by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office which patrols them.

Most of those who spoke Thursday called the regional surge in shootings a "crisis" and promised their new initiatives will help stem it, although Kafoury declined to say when the community could expect to see results.

"We are in unchartered territory," Kafoury said.

The city and county announcements came as shootings and gun-related killings are surging in the region. Portland alone is on track to break the record of 70 homicides in 1987. So far this year, 63 people have been killed in Portland; 47 by guns. There have been more than 870 shootings in the city by the end of August compared to 891 in 2020 and 388 in 2019.

In those jurisdictions patrolled by the sheriff's office, shootings have increased from eight in 2020 to 30 so far this year, including one homicide. Gresham shootings have increased from 103 last year to 122 so far, including 10 homicides.

During his Sept. 17 press conference, Wheeler said that bringing back police retirees will help ensure that more officers can be put on street patrols or help target gun violence immediately "as well as prevent burnout amongst our current officers."

Wheeler said he will make the request during the Fall Budget Monitoring Process. The ordinance with all the budget requests is scheduled to be filed on Oct. 18. The council will hold a work session on Oct. 19, a public hearing on Oct. 27, and take the final vote that same day.

Wheeler also said that if, enough money is available, he also will ask the council to fund body-worn cameras for officers, expand the 311 non-emergency phone line to reduce pressure on 911 dispatchers, and expand the Portland Street Response pilot program citywide to handle calls that do not require officers.

In addition, Wheeler said he expects the Focused Intervention Team approved by the council in April to reduce gun violence to be staffed and operational by mid-November.

The council also approved $6 million for alternative programs to reduce gun violence in April. It authorized $1.4 million for Portland Parks & Recreation to hire more park rangers, who would patrol the city's parks and neighborhoods through the end of the year. Another $4.1 million would go to grants for nonprofits working with the city's Office of Violence Prevention. Spending has been slow but is ramping up now, Wheeler said.

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