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‘People are afraid’ as gang activity fuels violence in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – When Oregon’s most populous city had a rampant gang problem 30 years ago, Portland detectives were stunned if they found more than a few dozen cartridge cases after a shooting. Now the police are recording multiple shootings per week with 50 to 70 shots, and in one case more than 150, as gang attacks and retaliatory shootings get bogged down again in a vicious cycle.

With more bullets comes more bloodshed. There have been 37 homicides in Oregon’s largest city so far this year, more than six times the number recorded at the same time last year. If nothing changes, Portland will surpass its all-time high of 70 homicides set in 1987, when the city was in the midst of a gang siege.

The violence has deeply affected Portland, a liberal city that continues to grapple with the role of its police force more than a year after thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters demanded changes following the murder of George Floyd.

The upsurge in gang-related shootings, which has disproportionately affected people of color, highlights a sensitive and polarizing topic – felt in major cities across the country – where violence is escalating as people continue to call for violence. financing policy.

“It touches us all,” said Portland pastor Matt Hennessee, a longtime gun violence activist whose 33-year-old stepson was shot and killed in a parking lot in May. “I have lived here for 32 years and have always considered this city a safe place. This is not the Portland we know.

Police estimate that half of Portland’s 470 shootings this year, which injured more than 140 people, are gang related. Mayor Ted Wheeler warned last month that gangs are ordering criminals to shoot someone within 30 days or be shot at and people are coming from other states to engage in violence in the Pink City .

” People are scared. They are angry. They are fed up, ”said Portland Police Sgt. Ken Duilio.

Portland’s pervasive gang violence in the 1990s – when it was estimated that there were 2,500 people in as many as 600 gangs in the area – left a crimson stain on the city’s recent history. But now, after the pandemic closed and Floyd’s murder coupled with a decrease in police presence, community leaders say the problem has returned.

While the number of shots is on par with the 1990s, police and locals say the daring of the shooters and the number of shots fired exceeds what they have seen before. Gangs also no longer wait for the typical “blow-for-blow” cycle to target a rival, but immediately shoot again at places such as vigils – injuring up to seven people in a single event.

“You have multiple shooters – it’s kind of a new phenomenon – multiple guns and a lot of shots,” said Duilio, who added that more shots increase the chances of passers-by being hit, including most recently included a newspaper carrier, an Uber driver and a city bus. driver.

While everyone agrees that Portland has a problem, the way to fix it is where people go their separate ways.

“There are a lot of bullets being fired in this area – everywhere,” Duilio said. “But the police office is underfunded, understaffed and underfunded.”

The rise in violence comes at a time when the Portland Police Bureau’s staffing levels are at their lowest in decades – the department has more than 100 officers short of “authorized strength,” as determined by the city.

Over the past nine months, the department has seen rapid turnover with more than 120 officers having left the department, many citing low morale and exhaustion due to nightly racial justice protests that would end in confrontation and plumes of tear gas. Meanwhile, as officers’ priorities shifted toward protests, Portland was also experiencing its deadliest year in more than a quarter of a century.

Despite calls from the police for more staff, city leaders cut the police budget by $ 27 million – $ 11 million due to the budget crisis caused by the pandemic and $ 15 million in the middle calls for police funding – pledging money to community groups working to fight gun violence.

“The police cannot stop the shootings,” Portland activist Royal Harris said. “That part, as a community, we have to work together to prevent these things instead of seeing it as a police approach.”

Officials also disbanded a specialized unit focused on countering gun violence that had long been criticized for disproportionately targeting people of color – a move some residents affected by gun violence are still questioning. .

“You kidnapped the Gun Violence Reduction Team. There is no one in this city who is stopping the circulation of these armed and violent snipers who scour the city in search of their rivals to shoot and who go to vigils and light up a whole crowd, ”said Duilio.

Jo Ann Hardesty, the first black woman elected to city council and who pushed to cut unity, maintains that disbanding the team last summer was the right move.

“The police have a role but their role is simply to solve crime – their role is not to prevent crime, their role is not to intervene in other community activities,” Hardesty told KOIN 6 last month. “A response to gun violence shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction. “

But as gun violence continued in 2021, leaders were forced to reassess. More officers have been assigned to shootings, the police office has partnered with the FBI to investigate crimes, and the US Oregon prosecutor has stepped up efforts to prosecute gun violence cases. But efforts to “pay back” even part of the cuts have been controversial.

In addition, the city council voted to create a team of 12 officers and two sergeants to fight gun violence, but without additional funds.

Chief Chuck Lovell said the department was “so skinny right now” that officials will likely have to remove officers from patrolling, domestic violence or human trafficking investigations to support the new team.

Duilio said that while funding for organizations and social services is important, it is only part of the solution and should not compete with funding for the police.

“They both have to happen,” Duilio said. “If you can put a 15-year-old on the right track where he’s not involved in shootings every two weeks, that’s great. But to really quell this level of intense violence that we are seeing right now, it will take uniformed police officers to stop these cars traveling from point A to point B for a shootout. “


Cline is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative Corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.

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