The decision to disband to Gun Violence Reduction Team has become a local and national controversy.
Shooting deaths in Portland have spiked in the month following the City Council decision to defund the Portland Police Bureau unit, which had repeatedly been accused of racial profiling. Since then, 15 people were killed in Portland in July to bring the homicide total to 31 for all of 2019.
The vast majority of those killed in July — 12 — were shot to death.
Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner called the decision a "mistake" on Wednesday, Aug. 5, and called on the council to reinstate the team.
"It is time for the Mayor to support the Portland Police Bureau and the community and fully reinstate the GVRT before more blood spills on our streets. It is time for City Council to set aside their self-serving agendas and egos and correct this terrible wrong before more die from this senseless violence," the head of the police union said in an Aug. 5 statement.
The facts are more complicated, however. As the Wall Street Journal reported in a front page story on Monday, Aug. 3, homicides are soaring in major cities across the country, including in those that have not restructured their police departments. The article cited experts who blamed the increase on a variety of factors, including the recession, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a nationwide backlash against police tactics following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis police.
But the controversy erupted in Portland before that article was widely read. The Republican National Committee and conservative news media tied the spike in local homicides to the political protests in Portland.
The RNC issued an email press release on Sunday, Aug. 2, noting there were 15 murders in Portland in the month after the City Council defunded the GVRT. The conservative PJ Media news site posted a story the next day that said the local murder rate soared after the council disbanded the team "in response to protests demanding they defund police."
That same day, the conservative Breitbart news site posted a story headlined, "Portland murders surge after City Council disbands police unit."
Shootings that did not result in homicides also spiked in Portland last month. According to the police, there were 99 shooting incidents in July 2020 compared to 35 in July 2019 — an increase of 183%.
Mayor Ted Wheeler did not immediately respond to a request for comment. His office announced a Thursday morning community news conference to address the spike in gun violence across the street from the Urban League of Portland in North Portland.
It is true that homicides in Portland soared to a 30-year high the month after the GVRT was disbanded. Even Police Chief Chuck Lovell, during an Aug. 5 press conference, said that decision by the City Council likely contributed to the increase. But Lovell also said there is another way the protests have likely contributed to the increase. He said so many officers were dealing with protesters every night in July, few were left to patrol the streets.
"They know there's not someone watching, there's no real deterrent there, and that's part of the issue that's causing the spike in July," Lovell said.
In addition, Lovell said disbanding the GVRT has made it harder to solve the killings because fewer officers are dedicated to gun crimes now. Patrol officers have been reassigned to help with some of the investigations, Lovell said.
Lovell said he favors having a dedicated team of officers to respond to the most serious violence in the city.
The increase in killings has prompted some violence prevention activists to call for a kinder, gentler version of the GVRT to be reestablished. They include Laurie Palmer, founder and CEO of Go Get Your Child, and Sam Sachs, founder of the No Hate Zone. Both agree the team had focused disproportionately on the Black community before it was disbanded. But they also say the council did not have a workable plan to replace it.
"We need a city-funded and supported, community-engaged plan to address the gun violence problem, and we also need to work with the Portland Police in some capacity to assist us in reducing these shootings," Sachs, a former law enforcement officer and Portland Human Rights Commissioner, said in an Aug. 5 letter to the council.
As Sachs pointed out in his letter, the murders are disproportionately impacting communities of colors. That has historically been true in Portland, and July was no exception. According to the police, a total of 38 people were shot last month. Twenty-five were Black, nine were white and four were Hispanic.
But a review of the July killings reveals the issue is complicated. For starters, seven of them were domestic disputes. A fifth was a stabbing that a Multnomah County grand jury ruled was self-defense. Two white men and a white woman were killed by a white man for reasons that have not yet been revealed. A Black man was killed in a shooting that his family called racially motivated, a charge which police said was not supported by the evidence. And a Black transgender woman was stabbed and killed at a gathering of people mourning the death of a previous shooting victim.
The 15 July homicides in Portland:
July 28: Aja Rhone-Spears, a 34-year-old Black transgender woman, died after being stabbed during a gathering at a residence in the 100 block of Northeast 92nd Place.
July 28: Jordan Lee Louis, 22, was shot and killed in the 800 block of Northeast Dekum Street.
July 27: Mister Ford, 19, was shot and killed in the 700 block of Northeast 87th Avenue.
July 26: Derrick James Jensen, 32, was shot and killed in the 6100 block of North Marine Drive.
July 25: Tyrell Penney, 27, was shot and killed at Southeast Division Street and Southeast 158 Avenue.
July 27: Lawrence Murphy, 77, Elmer E. Hughes, 45, and Tashia Cobb, 40, were shot and killed in a residence in the 2500 block of NE 122nd Avenue. Brett Pruett, 58, was arrested and charged with the murdersnd domestic violence.
July 10: Julian Heredia, 19, was shot and killed in the 13600 block of Southeast Powell Boulevard.
July 10: Shai-India Harris, 18, was shot and killed in the 7400 block of Southeast 84th Avenue. The suspect is her boyfriend, Kceon Colbert, 18.
July 9: Dominique Marcel Dunn, 28, was shot and killed in the 8300 block of Southwest Barbur. The suspect, Jordan Clark, 25, was arrested and charged with murder.
July 10: Nadezhda Volobuev, 61, was stabbed to death in a residence in the 16300 block of Southeast Foster Road. The suspect is her daughter, Angelina Maria Volobuev, 29, who was arrested and charged with murder.
July 8: Cody Nicholas Vickers, 32, was stabbed to death in the 1300 block Southeast Water Avenue. A Multnomah County grand jury ruled the suspect, Stephen Bache, 52, acted in self-defense.
July 5: Sharon Carr, 73, was killed by blunt force trauma in her residence in the 400 block of Southeast 99th Avenue. The suspect, her son, Todd Carr, 54, was arrested and charged with murder.
July 2: Jeffrey Sloan, 67, died after being assaulted during a domestic dispute in his residence in the 300 block of Northeast Dekum Street. The suspect, Damian Lucas, 36, was arrested and charged with murder.
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