PORTLAND, Ore, (KOIN) — Sgt. Michelle Hughes oversees the Portland Police Bureau’s homicide detectives. She said it’s tough for her teams to go from call to call to call.
Hughes told KOIN 6 News in April there is “a serious disregard for human life going on in this city.” But she said the officers are providing “battle care” in the field quite often at shooting scenes.
“They’re putting tourniquets and chest seals and taking care of these folks and getting them to the hospital. And they’re surviving,” she said. “There’s been multiple scenes where we’re out investigating a homicide and we hear shots around us.”
With resources stretched thin, Hughes said clearance rates are down. There has been an uptick of shootings in the daylight and the violence is not contained to one part of Portland.
Shooters, she said, “don’t care that they’re in the middle of downtown and it’s 5 o’clock and there are lots of people around.”
A recent development is how many of these shootings are at homeless camps. Another chilling aspect is that shooters are now willing to fire dozens of rounds.
“People just don’t care when they’re firing indiscriminately,” she said. “Between the gang violence and the houseless community, those are our two biggest contributors to homicides and shootings right now.”
Hughes, who has been with PPB for 24 years, said the city is different now than when she was a patrol officer.
“We didn’t have the homicides that we have today. Even when I first came in 2016, we were averaging 25-30 homicides a year. That rate has tripled,” she said.
It’s true that homicides have risen quickly in Portland in recent years. PPB data shows there were 16 homicides in 2016. The next four years saw totals of 25, 26, 36 and 57. Then, in 2021, Portland set a bloody record with 90 homicides.
That shattered the previous record of 66 set a generation ago, in 1987. The 90 homicides is also more than other West Coast cities of similar size.
Seattle reported 40 homicides in 2021. San Francisco had 56, Sacramento and San Diego each with 57.
Homicides in Portland are not slowing down in 2022. In the period between January 1 – April 30 last year, there were 29 homicides. In the same period this year, there were 33, PPB said.
The number of reported shootings has also jumped year-to-year in that same period, from 359 to 479.
In the conversation about gun violence it is true that homicides are going up everywhere. The FBI said homicides jumped nationally by 30% between 2019 and 2020.
But in Portland, that number was 83%.
‘We’re becoming overwhelmed’
In a press conference March 17, Mayor Ted Wheeler said he is “determined to see gun violence be reduced in our community. Obviously, that would happen much faster if we had more officers.”
PPB Chief Chuck Lovell said there are currently 772 sworn members on the force. An ideal staffing for a city of Portland’s size — about 650,000 people — would be 1100 sworn members.
Lovell acknowledged more officers could be retiring this summer. “I know we have about 90 who are eligible this calendar year, I know the majority are in July.”
He said they are hoping to hire more officers soon through recruitment and the retire-rehire program and they just hired eight background investigators to help speed the process.
PPB also just expanded their homicide unit to three teams of eight investigators. To do that, PPB had to shift detectives and sergeants from other units, even re-assigning everyone in their cold case unit to work on current homicides.
The rise in homicides is also impacting the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office.
In March, Chief Deputy District Attorney Kirsten Snowden explained the DA’s office reallocated the resources they have to focus on gun violence.
“We’re becoming overwhelmed,” Snowden said at a March 17 press conference and added they lost about a dozen deputy DA’s in the last year.
“Unfortunately, due to the crushing caseloads, we’ve lost 150 years of prosecutorial experience in the last year alone. I’d like to illustrate the significance of this from quotes from people who have recently left,” Snowden said. “One woman who worked as a deputy district attorney and left (in March) said ‘historically, trial unit DDAs have heavy workloads. But the in the past two years, the significant rise in homicides and violent felonies combined with a backlog of cases, lead to unsustainable workloads.'”
The Multnomah County DA’s Office said they are managing the caseload “in the wake of historic caseloads and a gun violence epidemic” by steadily hiring. But they admitted “cases are taking longer to resolve because of court backlogs” and because they type of cases they are “seeing an increase of are among the most time consuming.”
Metropolitan Public Defenders told KOIN 6 New by mid-April the court dropped about 40 cases due to a lack of public defenders. In at least one case, a judge decided to have the defendant come back to court in a month because there was no public defender available.
But Carl Macpherson, the executive director of Metropolitan Public Defenders, explained, if the state charges someone with a crime, that person is presumed innocent and has a constitutional right to a lawyer.
Without counsel, the defendant’s due process rights would be violated.
Macpherson said there are multiple factors why there is a shortage of public defenders.
“Public defense in Oregon has historically been underresourced. And the system is overloaded,” he said. “The pandemic exacerbated an already untenable situation, where caseloads were already high, already at excessive levels coming into the pandemic. The backlog that was created during the pandemic exacerbated that.”
Their office has had a problem with turnover due to a variety of factors, he said, but it mostly comes down to workload, low pay and a lack of resources.
The problem is so serious Mayor Wheeler wrote a letter to Gov. Kate Brown and other leaders. The April 29 letter said, in part:
“I am acutely aware of the resource shortages our criminal justice system faces across the board. Our city faces historically low numbers of police officers and significant staffing shortages in district attorney offices as well. However, the public defender crisis must also be prioritized immediately.”