Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and other members of the Portland City Council have mostly said little about the astonishing surge in shooting crimes, which rose ubruptly in the week that the "Gun Violence Reduction Team" of the Portland Police Bureau was disbanded in mid-2020. It's been pretty obvious to everyone else, however.
The latest count of criminal acts committed with guns across all of Portland was – at last update – 852 incidents.
Statistically, almost half of these shootings have been east of the Willamette River. This is up from 187 in 2019 – reaching 423 shootings in 2020 – in our part of the city; that's an increase of well more than double.
While the number of incidents of criminal acts committed with guns are mind-boggling, statistics mean little compared to the shock of witnessing of gun crimes on one's own street.
THE BEE attended an online meeting with the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association on December 22nd in which Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell disclosed that the Portland Police Burau had been tasked by Portland's Commissioner of Police, Mayor Ted Wheeler, to submit a plan to reduce shootings, with a deadline of Christmas.
Following up on December 28 with PPB Public Information Officer Lt. Greg Pashley, we learned, "The plan was presented by the deadline".
Starting off his comments during the meeting, Chief Lovell stated, "The shootings – the number that we've seen in the last six months or so – it's absolutely unbelievable, compared what we've seen normally. I believe that on May 4, we were at three (3) homicides in Portland; now we've just hit 53 homicides – that is unheard of, here in Portland."
What made the difference, Lovell shared, was having the PPB Gun Violence Reduction Team [GVRT] unit taken away from the Bureau. He explained that the unit worked primarily in the afternoons and into the evening, conducting "stops" to – as he put it – "do interdiction on people [which the GVRT members] believed to be involved in gun violence, or might be victims of gun violence."
The GVRT, at that time, consisted of two sergeants and twelve officers – who worked with PPB detectives, in partnership with the U.S. District Attorney's Office, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, and other local law enforcement entities.
"It was fairly successful: [Having] a tool in place to address shootings, and be a bit more pro-active," Lovell said. "When that went away on July 1, we lost that ability – the ability to go out and contact people – making interdiction and prevention a lot harder."
The GVRT staff was blended into the PPB's Detective Division among other places, and [its former members] continue to do follow-up work on shooting incidents, the Chief said. "This is been semi-successful, but not as impactful as was the team we had in place prior."
'Stops' data cited to disband the GVRT
Asked by a meeting participant specifically why the Gun Violence Reduction Team was disbanded, Chief Lovell answered succinctly in two words: "'Stops' data". [Background: All Oregon Law Enforcement Agencies are required to collect specific data, including demographic information, related to officer-initiated traffic and pedestrian stops.]
"One of the big issues with the GVRT was that the 'stops' data showed that African-Americans were being stopped at a higher percentage rate than they are represented in the population.
"That became a big issue," said Lovell – who is himself an African-American. "I think the Mayor was dealing with that at the Portland City Council level."
The PPB spent time and resources creating the GVRT, including working with the California Partnership for Safe Communities "Cease Fire" model, and a great deal of intensive training, Lovell reported. "It took us a couple of years to build that program, and get to where it was; and now it's gone – leaving us with the largest increase in shootings I've seen during my entire career!
"As you look around the country and the call for racial justice, there's not much appetite for police to be out doing stops of young African-American males," commented Lovell. "That's something that is frowned upon right now in our city, and in our country."
Official training not the issue
Asked if "targeted training" regarding "racial disproportionality" could have kept the GVRT program from being dismantled, Lovell responded, "We do a lot of training around equity; we're training around anti-racism; and, we have an 'Equity and Inclusion Manager' at the Bureau.
"I think the team members that were doing this work were really good people," he continued. "If officers are doing interdiction work, they are going to come in contact with African-American males.
"[Then,] all of a sudden, people tell us, 'Okay, we don't want to do this work anymore', because it's being looked at as being biased because of the "'stops 'data' – it makes it very hard to do interdiction," he said. "I think we always have to be cognizant of biases, [while nonetheless] looking at the nature of the work were doing.
"And we, as African-American males, are also overrepresented on the victim side of shootings, too," Lovell pointed out.
Repeated budget cuts hobble Bureau
Turning to the city budget cuts, Lovell commented, "You've heard about the 'De-fund Movement'. When we submitted our budget on July 1, it was with a 5.6% cut, because of COVID-19; about $11 million.
"Then on top of that, we lost another $15 million as part of the 'De-fund Movement' – [for a total of] $27 million budget reduction."
Later in the conversation, Lowell said, "We narrowly escaped an additional $18 million cut which the Portland City Council tried to bring forth; but, it did not pass, on a three to two vote.
"I think there is a lot of momentum behind [curbing] gun violence as a public health crisis," remarked Lovell. "But, at this point, I think we have to be really mindful of how we work collaboratively with our [city and county] partners, who can provide additional resources or expertise that allow us to have some impact with families – prior to a person becoming a victim of a shooting – or, maybe, going out to do a shooting."
Asked how the "De-fund Movement" money was being spent, Lovell said candidly, "I'm really not sure what happened to that $15 million they took from our budget.
"I hope that it went to something that's going to be productive, and to help people on the 'front end', so they don't have contact with the criminal justice system," Lovell went on. "If will impact these people's lives positively, and keep them from ever entering the criminal justice system, there is no way I could be upset with that, as a police chief."
Bureau staffing woes hinder service
Turning to Portland Police staffing levels, in another portion of the conversation, Lovell pointed out that while the City of Portland has "grown exponentially over the last several years", the Portland Police Bureau continues to operate with reduced staffing.
"I think we're as 'lean' as we've ever been. About 20 years ago, we had about 1,020 officers – there are now authorized only 900 officers, and something actually closer to 870 officers working right now." And, despite the increase in population in Portland in the last two decades, it's still declining.
The Chief revealed that about 50 officers retired in August, and about 20 more retired in January – and there are also some additional officers "just leaving the department" for unspecified reasons. "So, we are trying to shore up our patrol functions," Lovell said.
Asked about the shootings east of the Willamette River, PPB East Precinct Commander Erica Hurley took the question, responding, "All of that really goes back to what Chief Lovell was talking about – about the Gun Violence Reduction Team that we no longer have."
Commander Hurley said that East Precinct doesn't have the personnel to do the type of interdiction that might prevent shootings anywhere in East Portland.
"We have stepped up patrols in this area, to have a better presence when we can; but, again, with our current staffing levels, it's incredibly difficult to do," Hurley remarked. "With officers running from call to call, while [we're] constantly understaffed, they're trying "to get as much information we as they can [about the shootings] over to the Detective Division, so they can do the follow-up on the other side, and hopefully solve the crimes that are committed."
Mayor Wheeler asks for a plan
Many questions are being asked, in different ways, in the community, about what the Bureau's strategy is to reduce shootings. Chief Lovell responded, "People [with guns] feel like they can [now] go out and do the shootings, in all neighborhoods, at all different times of day, and get away with it – that is problematic for us.
"So, the Mayor asked us to come up with a new plan, 'by Christmas', to try to address this latest spate of shootings that we've had – [considering] the amount of shootings, and the brazenness [with which they take place]."
On December 28, THE BEE asked PPB Public Information Officer Lt. Greg Pashley if this "shooting reduction" plan had been completed. "Chief Lovell gave the Mayor's office a proposed plan to reduce shootings in Portland. The plan was presented by the deadline," he reported.
Also on December 28th, we respectfully asked Mayor Ted Wheeler to publicly reveal this "shooting reduction" plan to reduce shooting crimes, and ease the fear of gun-based crime here, east of the Willamette River in Portland.
So far, there we have had no response from Mayor Wheeler's office.
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