Portland 2021: City inaction on gangs and guns

Is Portland Over?

'Is Portland Over?' A KOIN 6 News series

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland is now a place where neighbors are scared. Will bullets strike their home, their cars, their loved ones?

The faces of those who have already died this year fade into numbers and statistics.

  • Makayla Maree Harris, 18, gunned down in a barrage of gunfire in front of some downtown food carts. Six others with her were wounded.
  • Odion and David Turner, cousins killed by gunfire in an ambush-style shooting at NE 82nd and Milton. Four others were wounded.
  • Danae Williams, 25, shot to death while sitting in a car at NE Dekum and MLK.
  • Jacob Knight-Vasquez, 34, who lost his life while sitting at a pizza restaurant at NW 21st and Glisan. Two others were wounded.

Residents like Todd Littlefield, David Potts and Juanita Sweetwood have personal experiences with the spate of gunfire in Portland.

“I hear it on a nightly basis,” Littlefield told KOIN 6 News. “A guy was shot about 50 feet from my house maybe a month ago. It’s scary.”

“It seems like the city is doing nothing,” Potts said. “They wring their hands and occasionally say, ‘This is terrible, it’s not acceptable for Portland.’ They don’t do anything.”

Sweetwood said city leaders have a hearing problem. “I don’t think they want to listen to the community or hear what the community has to say. They don’t want to hear it. I don’t think they have the ability to maybe put in a plan and execute it.”

‘An explosion of violence’

PPB Sgt. Mark Friedman supervises detectives for the Enhanced Community Safety Team, October 2021 (KOIN)

PPB Sgt. Mark Friedman supervises detectives for the Enhanced Community Safety Team, a team he admits can no longer keep the community safe.

“I’ve been a police officer for the last 23 years in Portland and what we’re seeing right now is unprecedented,” Friedman said.

The facts are stunning and frightening. Portland is outpacing other larger West Coast cities in deadly violence. So far in 2021, Portland has had 75 homicides. That’s more homicides than San Diego (54) and San Francisco (44) and has twice as many homicides as Seattle (40).

“We’re not the only city to deal with the rise in the murder rate, but our murder rate has gone through the roof,” said Dan Lavey with People for Portland. “We’ve done almost nothing but retreat from public safety.”

Lavey and Kevin Looper head up People for Portland. The non-profit launched a campaign to put pressure on city leaders to take action.

“Anybody that tells you there’s a plan right now at City Hall or at the county is lying to you. There’s no plan,” Lavey said.

Well, there is a plan. In early October the city installed traffic barrels in neighborhoods hit hard by gun violence. They called it an innovative solution. Residents in those neighborhoods disagree.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE – A Local Access Only barrel sits on SE Knight and SE 72nd Avenue after City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty ordered the Portland Bureau of Transportation to install the traffic-calming devices in the Mt. Scott-Arleta neighborhood in response to a number of recent shootings.

“There’s violence and shootings all over the place and then we’ve been trying to make our voices heard and then once we finally get a reaction, it’s traffic barrels,” James Fitzgerald told KOIN 6 News. “It makes you feel like you’re not heard at all.”

Grant Williams said, “It seems like it’s something that’s more of an idea born out of desperation than something that’s going to have an effective impact on the people that live in these neighborhoods. It doesn’t seem to do a whole lot.”

“I think it’s really an apt metaphor for the disconnect, kind of, between the city and what they think they should be doing and what people in the neighborhood want them to do,” said Parker Fitzgerald. “It’s almost like kind of pouring salt in a wound a little bit.”

But Jeffery Erickson, who lives directly across the street from the barrels, said they’ve “made a huge difference.”

“There was a couple of youngsters speeding up and down the streets radically for several days in a row. We haven’t seen them at all,” Erickson said.

He said there has been an “amazing” police presence.

“Last night I thought I saw an officer at least 6 times go up and down spotlight the park,” he told KOIN 6 News. “So the prep, their presence is amazing because a few weeks ago we might’ve seen one officer in a day. So it really has comforted all of us that live here.”

Traffic barrels can’t erase the fact Portland now has the highest number of shootings in its history, and on a percentage basis the highest increase than any other city in the US.

“I think we had 6800 casing cartridges cases that we picked up in the city of Portland in the last 12 months,” Sgt. Friedman said. “So, that’s 6800 bullets that have made their way somewhere.”

How did we get here? What happened?

Crime experts point to July 2020 when the Portland City Council defunded millions of police dollars and disbanded the Gun Violence Reduction Team without a strategy or alternative plan.

“And in July, when we (GVRT) were eliminated, we instantaneously saw a massive increase in shootings,” Friedman said. “And that has not stopped.”

Crime scene investigators near North Lombard Street and Chicago Boulevard after a shooting left 27 casings on the street. No injuries were reported, April 27 2021 (PPB)

Criminals, he said, “100% know that we are swamped right now. And they’re taking advantage of the situation. We don’t have enough officers right now to keep up with the calls coming in to 911.”

In a poll commissioned by People for Portland:

  • 89% of citizens support hiring more police along with increased police reforms and training.
  • 96% say the city should mandate police body cameras, something city leaders have failed to act on for years.

In Spring 2021, Mayor Ted Wheeler proposed forming a new police Focused Intervention Team, a replacement for the GVRT. Fellow commissioners reluctantly agreed but rejected his request for additional money to fund it.

Asked if he could confidently tell the citizens of Portland they’re safe, Wheeler was clear.

“First of all, I don’t believe in lying to people. I believe again in treating people like adults and telling them the truth,” the mayor told KOIN 6 News. “And the truth of the matter is we are under-policed in the city of Portland.”

He wasn’t lying.

Following that interview, Portland experienced a summer of death and violence never before seen, inaction by city commissioners and grieving family members left to pick up the pieces.

‘Please untie the hands of law enforcement officers’

Jacob Knight-Vasquez was shot to death at the Silver Dollar Pizza in NW Portland on September 24, 2021. (Undated photo, family via PPB)

After the death of Jake Vasquez, his brother-in-law Don Osborn implored city leaders to act, to do their jobs.

“I want to reach out to City Hall. Let’s please untie the hands of law enforcement officers,” Osborn said “I believe if the proper tools were in place for our law enforcement officers this wouldn’t have even happened. We’ve got to make sure the people of Portland are protected.”

Are city leaders listening?

They approved several million dollars for gun violence intervention programs targeting at-risk youth but admit results could take years. That prompted The Oregonian to write this editorial on September 19:

“The council’s long-term vision does not excuse its short-term sluggishness in facing this urgent, unyielding epidemic of violence.”

Commissioner Mingus Mapps is trying to move the council out of sluggishness and is proposing critical solutions.

Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, October 14, 2021 (KOIN)

“It’s the fact that, number one, our police department is understaffed for a city our size,” Mapps told KOIN 6 News. “My goal is to add about 300 new officers to the Portland Police Bureau. That’ll get us up to the 1100-1200 level, which is enough to provide full coverage 24/7.”

Wheeler also wants 300 additional officers and sees Mapps as an ally.

“It’s not just me talking anymore,” Wheeler said “There seems to be sufficient support from city council to hire more officers.”

But is optimism enough to overcome months of inaction by city leaders because of their political and philosophical differences?

Mapps said it’s more than just hiring more officers.

“Portland also needs to hear that we have a police department which is understaffed and demoralized, is not currently supported with the tools they need,” he said.

Among his other solutions: expand the Portland Street Response Team and face the truth that Portland has a gang problem.

“I’m particularly concerned about the fact that we have not come to terms with gang violence here in Portland,” Mapps told KOIN 6 News. “Until we get on top of that we’re not going to be able to bring our homicide numbers down.”

Kimberly Dixon lost her son, Andreas, to gun violence in 2013. She’s appeared in ads for the People for Portland campaign and is also calling for more police officers.

“Ife we had a significant amount of fires, we would not be throwing fire trucks over the bridge and saying, ‘Nope, we don’t need those. We’re gonna cut, we’re gonna cut that in half, we’re going to reduce the amount of fire trucks,'” Dixon said. “We make sure we have enough fire trucks to cover per capita. Then we need to have enough law enforcement to cover the citizens.”

Dixon applauds the efforts at funding intervention programs for at-risk youth, targeting the root causes of gun violence. But she said that’s only one piece of the puzzle and Portland needs action now.

“We defunded and we disbanded. We did not reconstruct anything,” she said. “So we left officers and we left this community literally out there naked without protection.”

‘We have to have law and order’

Lionel Irving points out the corner at NE Dekum and MLK where Danae Williams was shot and killed while sitting in a car, an innocent victim of a drive-by shooting.

“She was in the car. She definitely wasn’t the target,” Irving told KOIN 6 News.

He spent time in prison for killing a 14-year-old boy when he was part of the gang life. He turned his life around and now helps others end the cycle of violence with his Love Is Stronger program.

“We don’t matter what you call it — gang violence, gun violence, inter-community violence, group violence,” Irving said. “We’ve got a gun violence problem.”

Lionel Irving started the Love Is Stronger program to help others end the cycle of violence in Portland, October 2021 (KOIN)

He supports a much greater investment in intervention programs but said we all deserve basic public safety — and does not support defunding the police.

“No. No question. Not at all. Then who is gonna give me, who gonna protect-and-serve if you defund the police? Who they gonna fund? Who gonna be running the streets with somebody? We have to have law and order in some form.”

Is Portland over? A place where police admit they can’t provide the level of safety citizens deserve? When many feel a sense of sadness and despair over what we know our city can and should be? When it comes to stopping the cycle of gun violence and death on our streets?

“I think I feel what every Black parent in Portland feels,” Mapps said. “It’s terrifying. I got an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old boy with brown skin who, you know, ride their bikes to school and home from school. You know, we hear bullets on weekend nights like Portlanders all around. I am scared to death as they get older.”

Kimberly Dixon spoke with KOIN 6 News at Alberta Park, while children played nearby.

“This is how a park should look, filled with life. And the kids on that swing don’t have a care in the world right now. They’re not thinking about violence,” Dixon said. “That’s how it should be for everybody.”

The future is in our hands. There is a Hawaiian word — kuleana — which means it is our utmost responsibility to ensure they have the best future.

A future, and a past whose faces we can’t forget.

Have a question or comment? Email: isportlandover@koin.com

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