‘We have a record gun violence and homicide problem in this city’

Is Portland Over?

Everyone agrees Portland has a gun violence problem — but no one seems to agree on how to solve it

Editor’s note: This is part three of an ongoing series this week through May 17 looking into issues the City of Portland faces. Click here for the full series, send us your comments to isportlandover@koin.com and tune in Monday, May 17 at 7 p.m. for our hourlong special.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The sound of gunfire is becoming increasingly familiar across Portland as shootings and homicides reach historic rates, with no sign of slowing down.

Police in Portland reported a staggering 347 shootings citywide between January 1 and April 30.

There were 393 shootings in the entire year of 2019. In 2020, that figure increased to about 900.

With hundreds of shootings already this year in Portland and more than 100 people injured by gunfire by the end of April, the city is also experiencing a huge spike in homicides. The Portland Police Bureau logged 56 total homicides in 2020 — the highest number in decades. Portland tallied 27 homicides through April.

Real people are behind every statistic.

Someone gunned down Raymond Smith’s wife, Kelley Smith, while they were making an Uber Eats delivery together in December of 2020, police said. Smith has since been diagnosed with cancer and must face the struggle without his wife of 25 years.

“She should be here with me, going through this lung cancer situation. But she didn’t have the opportunity to because someone took her life,” Smith said.

Raymond Smith talks about his wife, Kelley, who was shot to death in December 2020 while delivering for Uber Eats, February 23, 2020 (KOIN)

Smith said he supports more policing to reduce violence on Portland’s streets.

“I think that gun task force, they need to get that going. That might deter people from what deter a lot of people from doing what they’re doing if they know people are specifically looking for people who are shooting or planning on shooting,” he said. “If that could lead to arrests and people’s lives being saved. If they did it to my wife, they’ll do it to your mother.”

The dramatic rise in violence comes at a time when the PPB’s staffing is at its lowest in decades. While everyone agrees this is a major problem for the Rose City, no one seems to be able to agree on how to solve it.

As of late April, Portland police said they’re more than 100 members short of “authorized strength.” In exit interviews, members cited burnout, ongoing riots and low morale as reasons for leaving. Some said they didn’t feel supported by their city council.

PPB Lt. Greg Pashley said the lack of officers combined with skyrocketing violent crime is impacting the bureau’s ability to investigate homicides.

“Since there have been so many of those, the people we do have assigned to it have more cases than we’re really staffed for. So that makes the response not as swift as people would expect and also the investigations not as swift and not as much time dedicated to each case as people would expect,” said Pashley.

The staffing shortage also impacts response times to 911 calls.

“Depending on what’s going on in the city, a lot of calls might not get an immediate response — even an emergency,” he said.

Newly reinstated Portland Police Association Executive Director Daryl Turner recognizes the situation is a drastic step away from what is normal for Portland.

“For Portlanders, this is unusual,” he said. “Anyone who has been here a long time understands and knows that. It’s an uncomfortable and unsafe feeling when people don’t frequent downtown like they used to; when people are scared in their neighborhoods after dark; when people don’t let kids outside at certain times. It’s just not right. And most of those people impacted are people of color.”

Turner said Portland has “absolutely” become a more dangerous city in the past handful of years. He believes more officers are needed in order to curb the violence.

“To be able to do that effectively, we have to build our staffing up,” Turner said. “To be able to do that effectively, we have to have a budget that is consistent with the resources we need.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler agrees police need more funding but is facing opposition from City Council.

“I understand that the police need to evolve and that they need to improve the way they police and they need to be more accountable to the public they serve,” Wheeler said. “But I still believe we are under-policed in terms of the resources that we have deployed on the streets. Today, we have a record gun violence and homicide problem in this city and I was not able to get additional dollars to support my focused intervention team that will work to disrupt those cycles of violence that will be engaged in proactive activities to address gun violence. I had to find those resources internally, which is fine.”

In early April, Portland city commissioners allocated about $6 million for fighting gun violence but didn’t assign any of the money to the Portland Police Bureau, instead investing in park rangers and community organizations. In a one-on-one interview shortly before those funding decisions were made public, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty explained why she doesn’t think policing alone is the solution to curbing gun violence.

“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,” said Hardesty. “A response to gun violence should not be a knee-jerk reaction. As you know, we intentionally cut very specific programs in PPB’s budget during the last budget process because those programs had racially disparate outcomes.”

Hardesty maintains that disbanding the Gun Violence Reduction Team last summer wasn’t a mistake and is “a totally unrelated issue” when it comes to the rise in shootings.

Members of the now-disbanded Gun Violence Reduction Team examine evidence markers at the scene of a shooting in Old Town on Monday, Dec. 30, 2019. (PPB)

Various leaders, experts and community members have different opinions on what is to blame for the increase in gun violence. Clay Mosher, a professor and criminologist at Washington State University, said the pandemic could be playing a factor. If that’s the case, then the rate of violent crime could decline as COVID-19 loosens its grip.

“I don’t know too many people who are doing well under this situation,” said Mosher. “When I just see the spikes and the domestic violence stuff here locally, when I see the spikes in homicides and so on, a lot of it’s pent-up energy. It’s just a big mess.”

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt agrees.

“For me, it’s pretty clear this is the pandemic,” he said when asked about the leading cause of the rise in violence.

But Schmidt admits the pandemic isn’t solely to blame. Police say gang violence and retaliatory shootings are part of the problem.

“It’s absolutely a contributing factor,” Schmidt said.

While city leaders and the community grapple with how to best stop the cycle of violence, time has already run out for dozens of Portlanders who have lost loved ones. Raymond Smith said he thinks about his late wife “every day. I still feel her with me but it’s been very hard.”

Despite no new additional funding, the PPB launched the Enhanced Community Safety Team in February to investigate shootings. City commissioners also directed the bureau in April to form a “Focused Intervention Team.” The PPB is still in the process of figuring out how to fulfill that directive.

We want to hear from you. Send us your comments to isportlandover@koin.com and tune Monday, May 17 for an hour-long special at 7 p.m.

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