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Police, city leaders seek solutions to shooting spike that is sweeping across East Multnomah County

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER KEIZUR - Gresham Interim Police Chief Claudio Grandjean said his department is understaffed and underfunded.For more than three decades, Claudio Grandjean has served his hometown as a police officer.

He has worked his way up through the Gresham Police Department, and understands the ins and outs of law enforcement. He has been promoted to sergeant, captain and the current interim chief.

He has worked a beat as a patrol officer, and helmed major projects within the department — working to recruit more diverse officers to better represent the community and taking the helm last year on researching and equipping every officer with a body-worn camera.

Grandjean might have said he had seen it all in his 34 years — but then came an explosion of violence and gunfire across the community, capped by a mass shooting he said "shocks the conscience."

Last month a group of loved ones came together to remember the life of 22-year-old Alejandro Baraja, who had been killed in a shooting Monday, April 26, near the intersection of Southeast 174th Avenue and Southeast Stark Street.

COURTESY PHOTO: KOIN 6 NEWS - A vigil  for 22-year-old Alejandro Baraja was the scene of a mass shooting in Gresham late last month. As the crowd gathered to light candles, leave mementos and share stories, a black SUV drove by, firing on the vigil. Seven people were struck as the vehicle sped off along Stark Street.

"Our hearts and minds and thoughts are with the individuals impacted by this violence," Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall said after the shooting.

As police responded, they found a scene of violence and carnage that is becoming all too familiar as shooting incidents continue to rise across East Multnomah County.

"There have always been ebbs and flows through the years, and it can be difficult to explain why shootings increase or decrease each year," Grandjean said. "But the difference this year has been so dramatic — I have never seen anything like it."

Now Gresham leaders are coming together to seek solutions to the increased in gun violence. There are immediate conversations happening to stem the shootings across the community, and discussions around long-term solutions that may prevent violence from taking root.

For Grandjean that means taking a holistic approach to addressing the spike in shootings.

"Our city leadership is on board with doing that," he said. "Partnering with the community so we can look at long-term strategies, especially with communities of color who are affected more so than others."

Mass shootings

COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - Firearms seized during various arrests this year.There have been two mass shootings in Gresham this year under the common definition, which stipulates at least four victims — city officials don't agree with this categorization, citing a lack of randomness to the violence.

The vigil shooting came on the heels of a incident at the Golden Knight Motel on March 18, in which three were arrested after gunfire that left four injured.

The shooting took place at the motel, 750 E. Powell Blvd. The violence began in a motel room before eventually spilling out into the parking lot — leaving a scene officers described as "extremely complex," due to the number of victims and how far the chaos had spread.

And while the pair of mass shootings have drawn the most headlines and concerns, there have been an alarming number of incidents that have occurred this year across East Multnomah County.

In March, SWAT officers were mobilized to make an arrest in Corbett after a man stepped out of his vehicle brandishing a pair of semi-automatic handguns.

Two shootings also took place the same evening as the vigil mass shooting.

Portland Police responded to gunfire near Southeast 151st Avenue and Southeast Stark Street, discovering 32 shell casings and a victim with serious injuries after being shot multiple times.

In Fairview, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office deputies found a man suffering from a gunshot wound in the 22700 block of Northeast Halsey Street.

Two shootings took place in April at the Troutdale Motel 6, 1610 N.W. Frontage Road — a violent carjacking at gunpoint and a disagreement that led to a non-life-threatening gunshot wound.

COURTESY PHOTO: MULTNOMAH COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - Two shootings took place this year at the Troutdale Motel 6. The violence has led to concern from Troutdale Mayor Randy Lauer, who is seeing a troubling rise in crime within his community.

"We need to stop taking away resources and programs from our police and sheriff's office," Lauer said. "As a community we need to rally around each other and start finding solutions."

All of this comes on the heels of a drastic increase in Gresham shootings between 2019 and 2020. The numbers do not reflect the "shots heard" calls fielded by officers that do not result in subsequent cases.

In 2019 there were 33 shootings with nine involving injuries within Gresham city limits. In 2020 there were 54, with 15 involving injuries. So far 2021 is on track to eclipse last year's numbers.

"I haven't seen complex shooting scenes like this all stacked on top of another," Grandjean said.

And things are worse in Portland. Through March 2021, the city has recorded 273 shootings. Grandjean said violence doesn't stop at the city's border. There is no barrier between the two cities, he explained, so as violence climbs in Portland, it inevitably spills over into East Multnomah County.

"We are working to get to the bottom of these cases, and hold people accountable," he said.

Grandjean said the Gresham Police Department is understaffed and underfunded, preventing his officers from proactively stopping the violence from occurring. Anecdotally, the interim chief has never remembered his detectives being stretched so thin.

In the case of the vigil shooting, detectives were already investigating the murder of Baraja when the mass shooting occurred. All of a sudden an understaffed department had to coordinate an arrest for the Baraja killing while also seeking suspects for the vigil violence — an incident in which no arrests have been made as of Wednesday, May 5.

"It feels like this is all happening closer together," he said.

Short term, long term

COURTESY PHOTO: CITY OF GRESHAM - Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall is working with other city leaders to find solutions to prevent gun violence from happening across the city.Gresham Council President Eddy Morales understands the pain that comes from losing a loved one to gun violence.

Two of his brothers have been shot and killed in the region. Morales briefly dropped out of high school following the murder of his teenage brother, who was shot in the head by a stranger while standing in a crowd with other Hispanic people. Morales was 16 at the time, and said he could have fallen through the cracks and gone down a dark path.

But it was programs that got him back on his feet. Morales remained active in the community, continuing his involvement with the Police Activities League, now known as Friends of the Children. Eventually he became the first person in his family to graduate from high school and college.

Tragedy struck his family again last summer, when another brother was shot and killed while robbed at gun point.

"We are still healing from that trauma," Morales said. "My heart goes out to our community and (the victims)."

Morales said the gun violence is a public health crisis because it is impacting the lives of youths. He spoke of utilizing partnerships and community organizations to address the violence — adding no one law enforcement agency can solve this alone. Some of that ties into renewed efforts to establish a parks and recreation department within the city — an area that has long been lacking.

Stovall said growing up in a violent area of Kansas City, it was summer softball that kept him and his brother from getting wrapped up in activities that would have led down a bad path.

City Council is working to bring in new investments, counteracting budget woes that are hamstringing much of Gresham's ability to address systemic issues. They are working with local legislators to get $3 million for a youth violence prevention program. Council is also investigating potential funding for a proposal to construct a new youth center in Rockwood.

Part of the problem, according to Stovall, is that with COVID shutdowns, many of the programs that were making a positive impact had to be temporarily shuttered.

"The connections and outreach we were making haven't been happening in the past two years," he said.

Stovall also pointed to poverty and a lack of opportunities for some residents.

"There is a direct correlation between poverty and crime," Stovall said. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

In the short term the Gresham Police Department are implementing some strategies to hopefully curb the gun violence. They have increased patrols in hot spots, and have formed a partnership with Portland and Multnomah County to form the Metro Safe Streets Task Force. That team will attempt to address the shootings by sharing information and resources.

"Those partnerships are just now being cemented, they are not completely finished," Grandjean said. "But collaboration has already begun, which makes everybody safer."

And as the city works to stop the violence, and quiet the gunfire, Mayor Stovall called for people to continue reporting any violence or dangerous situations.

"As a community we have to be resilient and let the folks propagating this violence know that we will not stay in our homes," Stovall said. "We need to be out creating a sense of community."

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