Looking at the data: Portland crime during the pandemic

Is Portland Over?

If crime is cyclical, is there hope crime in Portland will decrease after the pandemic?

A KOIN file photo of a taped off police scene.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland saw a 60 percent increase in the number of homicides in 2020 compared to 2019.

The 56 homicides the police bureau reported in 2020 is a massive jump from the 35 reported in 2019 and more than double the numbers reported in 2018 and 2017.  

However, the sudden spike in homicides isn’t a problem exclusive to Portland. The similarly-sized cities of Denver, Washington, D.C., Boston and Milwaukee all saw spikes in murders and non-negligent manslaughter cases in 2020 compared to the previous year. 

Compared to D.C., which recorded 198 homicides in 2020, and Milwaukee, which recorded 190, Portland’s numbers might not seem so bad. 

However, Clay Mosher, a sociology professor at Washington State University Vancouver who studies crime trends, said to be cautious when comparing cities directly. 

“You’ve heard the term comparing apples to oranges and comparing across cities… might be equivalent to comparing apples to broccoli, or perhaps even comparing apples to steak,” he said. 

Like Mosher, the Federal Bureau of Investigation also warns against comparing agencies’ crime statistics directly and said these comparisons can create misleading perceptions. 

“There are many factors that cause the nature and type of incidents to vary from place to place. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale,” the FBI states on its website. 

Mosher said there are a lot of factors to consider including demographic differences across cities, levels of poverty, median income, the number of police officers per capita, and segregation. 

One factor Portland Police Bureau has been considering is the role of gang violence in shootings over the last several months. 

Portland police recorded 891 shootings in 2020. That’s more than double the number of shootings in 2019. Already, for the first three months of 2021, there have been 273 reported shootings. 

In January 2021, Portland Police Bureau officer Derek Carmon told KOIN 6 News he felt certain a lot of the shootings in the city were related to gang violence. In 2020, the police bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team was disbanded. The city and bureau have since formed the Enhanced Community Safety Team and hope this group of officers will help investigate the slew of homicides. 

However, Portland Police Bureau’s Sgt. Kevin Allen said it’s difficult to keep up with the homicide investigations when investigators are needed for patrol. The bureau says it’s in a major staffing crisis and is hoping to hire more officers. 

Portland resident Mike “Bretto” Jackson mentors young men involved in violence around the city through the organization Leaders Become Legends. He agrees that several shootings over the last year were retaliatory, but he feels more police officers won’t solve the problem. 

He believes young people involved in the violence need to be connected to their spirituality and need mentorship like his to help them turn their lives around. 

“More programs with the right curriculum, with the right information could possibly help lead somebody into a direction to wake up and then want to stop,” he said. 

Mosher said the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could also be contributing to increased crime. 

“I don’t know too many people who are doing well under this situation. And again… when I see the spikes in homicide and so on, you know, a lot of it’s pent-up energy. It’s just a big mess,” he said.  

Homicides weren’t the only crime that increased in 2020. Portland Police Bureau said they also saw a spike in burglaries. 

“We saw pretty early on in the pandemic burglaries were starting to go up,” Allen from the Portland Police Bureau said. “We saw an interesting shift where there was more commercial burglaries than there were residential burglaries.” 

Allen said police suspected this was because so many people were staying home instead of going into their workplaces and shops. 

Mosher said the relationship between crime and the economy has been heavily researched and that times of recession tend to include more property crime as opposed to violent crime.  

Portland Police Bureau, which publishes crime data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System on its website, shows there were 5,438 burglaries in 2020. That’s about a 30 percent increase from those recorded in 2019. 

However, the latest available data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program show Portland had fewer burglaries in 2020 compared to 2019. 

UCR data is an aggregate aggregate of monthly tally of crimes, while NIBRS data tends to dive deeper due to its ability to provide more circumstances and context for crimes and whether the crime was cleared, according to the FBI. 

Portland Police Bureau’s Strategic Services Division also said the state and FBI have reporting deadlines and their reports are based on the information they had as of a specific date. 

UCR data also show that the number of robberies in Portland decreased in 2020 compared to the previous year. 

Portland Police Bureau’s NIBRS data show there was a slight increase in the number of robberies. These data also show that Portland saw a drop in larceny crimes and assaults in 2020 and the number of motor vehicle thefts increased only slightly from the number reported in 2019. 

The Portland Police Bureau’s Strategic Services Division said it’s not always easy to pinpoint what precipitated the changes that made a specific crime trend occur. 

“Yes Covid-19 pandemic and social justice movements have an impact on some of the emerging trends. However, no trend can be explained by one causal factor,” the division said in a statement. 

Sgt. Allen from the Portland Police Bureau said although their resources have been stretched thin, the bureau is keeping records of all crimes reported to them. 

Mosher said it’s possible crime during the COVID-19 pandemic years could prove to be a statistical anomaly and he’s interested to see what the long-term data will show. 

“We should be concerned about what we’re seeing, especially under COVID, but at the same time, you know, we have to be careful not to be alarmist about this and then move things back to where we were earlier,” he said. 

Allen agreed, saying crime is cyclical. He said the police bureau is hopeful the cycle will change and the city will start seeing a reduction in shootings, homicides, and other crimes that spiked during the pandemic. 

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