'Where are we headed?' Portland's record-setting year for murder fuels search for answers

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Pastor J.W. Matt Hennessee, a longtime local anti-gun violence advocate, never expected to lose his own child to the bullets he has tried to stop for almost four decades.

So when he got a call on May 13, letting him know that his stepson Jalon Yoakum, 33, was the latest victim in an onslaught of violent crime, Hennessee felt numb.

“This isn’t something where I’m new to the table,” said Hennessee, 62, who has battled gun violence in Portland for 40 years. “But I hadn’t worried about it, hadn’t thought about it, and when that call came …”

His voice trailed off.

“It’s not going away,” Hennessee said. “Jalon was victim No. 31 and there’s been (36) more from May to October. Where are we headed?”

Crime is up all over the country, and has been since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. But there is a a certain sad irony in Portland, long considered a safe, desirable place to live. Already, the city has tallied 67 homicides for 2021, breaking a 34-year-old record of 66. Last year, 55 homicides was a 26-year high in the city. 

The numbers alone are troubling, but even more worrisome when compared with other similarly sized cities, where violent crime numbers are considerably less, including Seattle and Boston. In Portland, long considered a liberal stronghold in America, some community leaders and officers feel that police defunding efforts in summer 2020 may have backfired, at least somewhat. With fewer officers on the street, violence has escalated significantly.

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City defunds shooting prevention team

Portland's gun violence problems can be traced back, at least partially, to the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. Floyd’s murder, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, sparked a nationwide racial reckoning as hundreds of thousands took to the streets.

In Portland, a predominantly white city, protesters rallied for more than 130 days straight.

A few months after Floyd’s death, as national conversations about police bias dominated public meetings, the Portland City Council on July 1, 2020, voted to defund and disband Portland’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, the task force devoted to preventing and investigating shootings.

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The effect in the streets was immediate: From Jan. 1, 2020, to June 30, 2020, Portland had just four murders. In the following 12-month period, Portland tallied 94 homicides.

Oregon Police wearing anti-riot gear march towards protesters through tear gas smoke during the 100th day and night of protests against racism and police brutality in Portland, Oregon, on September 5, 2020
Oregon Police wearing anti-riot gear march towards protesters through tear gas smoke during the 100th day and night of protests against racism and police brutality in Portland, Oregon, on September 5, 2020

One of those killed was JaMarie Herring Sr., 25, who was shot in a bar in late August. Royal Harris, who said Herring was “like a nephew to me,” has lost numerous friends and family to gun violence throughout his 52 years in Portland. Harris was rocked by Herring’s death, a devastatingly familiar feeling: Eight years ago, Harris lost his younger brother to gun violence.

“I know what it’s like to get that call; I know what it’s like to get that call many times over,” Harris said. “I know what it’s like to stand with someone and 45 seconds later, they’re on the ground shaking and their brain is on the sidewalk. I know that life intimately.”

He called the move to disband the gun violence task force a bad idea that had “political intention.”

“This is not a matter of taking the police and throwing them away,” Harris said. “It’s about recognizing where deficits are and addressing those.” The people who pushed for defunding the task force, he said, “don’t have boots on the ground, so they don’t understand the problems, let alone the solutions.”

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According to police, offenders, including gang members, were well aware of the department’s funding change in summer 2020, and it worked to their advantage.

The gun violence task force, previously known as the Gang Enforcement Team, had 45 officers. The team worked all shooting cases, which involved deep-dive investigations of shootings, serving of warrants and self-initiated work, including tasks like traffic stops, subject contacts and making police presence known in high crime areas. When those 45 officers were given different assignments, crime skyrocketed.

“To everybody in the police bureau, it was super-obvious what was going to happen,” said acting Portland Police Lt. Kenneth Duilio. “Shootings went crazy. Within the first or second month, we hit an all-time record.”

Asked whether Portland is a safe city, Duilio didn’t hesitate: “Oh no, I don’t think so. It’s not as safe as it could be or should be.”

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In the wake of anti-police sentiment across the country in summer 2020, cities decreased police budgets. Some cities invested in community programs, including non-police crisis response teams. In Portland, the City Council voted to disband the gun violence task force shortly after an audit came back that implied many of the stops made by the team were racially motivated.

Within a few months of of being defunded, police were hearing from community members who were worried about the rise in violence.

Hennessee, who along with his stepson has lost a handful of members of his congregation to gun violence, was one of those people. He said that the move to disband the task force “was not handled in the best way” and that it was clear there was no immediate alternative plan.

“What we’re seeing in a city where we’re 6 or 7% Black is that more than 50% of people who have died on the street are Black or brown, it makes one wonder if indeed the GVRT was a factor in preventing these before,” Hennessee said.

'Not helpful to ignore' gang problem

There are other issues that have contributed to the rise in violent crime, according to activists across the state. Perhaps the biggest: Portland has a gang problem, which numerous people say the city is in denial about.

Mingus Mapps, 53, has served as a Portland city commissioner since January, joining six months after the Gun Violence Reduction Team disappeared. He told USA TODAY that the conversation around violent crime needs to be reframed.

“Here in Portland, there’s been a well-intentioned desire to not label African-American men in particular as gang members,” Mapps said. “Obviously as an African-American man myself, I can tell you that the vast majority of us are not part of gang situations. At the same time, it is not helpful to ignore the fact that gang violence is a problem that plagues the Black community.”

Portland City Commission Mingus Mapps, right, has said more police officers, and an acknowledgement of a city-wide gang problem, are key to slowing the wave of violent crime.
Portland City Commission Mingus Mapps, right, has said more police officers, and an acknowledgement of a city-wide gang problem, are key to slowing the wave of violent crime.

One of the biggest issues, Mapps and Portland police say, is the unprecedented number of retaliatory shootings. Anger and a desire to get revenge can fester for years –and when there’s no officers to do intervention and prevention work, getting revenge is that much easier.

Comparing Portland’s crime stats with other cities is a sobering exercise. According to an analysis by Willamette Week, the city’s alternative paper, Black residents are more likely to die in Portland than Black residents in cities long infamous for crime, including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

A comparison to similar-size cities – Portland proper is home to about 650,000 residents – is interesting, too. Las Vegas, which also has about 650,000 residents, has had 119 homicides so far in 2021. Cities slightly bigger have better numbers though: Boston, with a population of roughly 684,000, has recorded 35 homicides. Seattle, just three hours north of Portland, has about 75,000 more people, and 33 fewer homicides in 2021, for a total of 34. Detroit, which is home to 670,000, has recorded 251 homicides so far this year.

Another factor to consider: There’s a nationwide police shortage, which puts a strain on officers and departments across the country. Portland should have just over 1,600 officers. But as of mid-October, the department had just 788, and nearly 90 more retirements were expected by the end of the year.

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Penny Okamoto, executive director of the Ceasefire Oregon Education Foundation, which works to reduce the number of gun injuries and deaths in the state, has been involved in gun violence prevention for more than 20 years. She described herself as “horrified and angry about the preventable loss of life” in the state – but far from surprised.

One of her biggest frustrations: When COVID-19 hit and the nation went into quarantine, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, like many of her counterparts across the country, deemed gun stores necessary businesses, and allowed them to stay open. Gun sales soared.

“A lot of people have forgotten that fact,” Okamoto said. “I haven’t. We could have done a great deal more to shop the bloodshed that’s going on right now.”

Still, Okamoto and others believe there’s hope for things to get better.

In this July 17, 2021, file photo, police investigate an overnight fatal shooting in Portland, Ore. Portland is on track to shatter its record of 66 homicides, set in 1987. The city's police department is struggling to keep up amid an acute staffing shortage and budget cuts. (Mark Graves/The Oregonian via AP, File) ORG XMIT: ORPOR201
In this July 17, 2021, file photo, police investigate an overnight fatal shooting in Portland, Ore. Portland is on track to shatter its record of 66 homicides, set in 1987. The city's police department is struggling to keep up amid an acute staffing shortage and budget cuts. (Mark Graves/The Oregonian via AP, File) ORG XMIT: ORPOR201

In response to the wave of shootings, and the acknowledgement that the department lost something with the disbandment of the gun violence task force, Portland police are creating the Focus Intervention Team, which will essentially fulfill all the duties the gun task force did but with more community oversight. The plan is to start with a staff of 12 and be on the streets by mid-December.

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The city budget is expecting a surplus of more than $60 million, and in the coming weeks it will vote on how to use that money. One proposal is to hire back recently retired officers, which Mayor Ted Wheeler supports. That allocation of funds could benefit the new Focus Intervention Team.

Some city leaders, including Wheeler and Mapps, have been emphatic about the need for more funding for more officers. On Sept. 19, Mapps – who told USA TODAY that he no longer lets his 11- and 12-year-old children play outside without his supervision – wrote an editorial in the Oregonian detailing his proposal to reduce the number of fatal shootings. He called for more police and bodycams, more support for police, expansion of Portland's non-law-enforcement response team and citywide acknowledgement of a gang problem. Mapps wrote that to move forward, “the Portland Police Bureau must play a role to stop the killing on our streets.”

“I really do think that the fate of Portland hinges on decisions made by the city council between now and Halloween,” Mapps said.

Additionally, residents are taking matters into their own hands. Lift Every Voice Oregon, a faith-based coalition, has filed two statewide initiative petitions for the November 2022 ballot intended to reduce gun violence. IP 17 would require Oregonians to get a permit before purchasing a firearm and ban any magazines holding more than 10 rounds; IP 18 would prohibit the future sale and manufacture of semi-automatic assault firearms and require people who already own those to register them. Both are expected to get in front of voters.

“I’m optimistic that the the tide will turn,” Duilio said. “It has to. If it doesn’t, I don’t even like to speculate about how much worse it can get in Portland.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Portland, Oregon, has endured record year for murder. What happened?

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