PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler sat down (remotely) with KOIN 6 News Thursday to answer our questions about skyrocketing gun violence in the city, protests, livability issues, and the increasingly hostile political climate that has resulted in the mayor hiring security to accompany him when he’s out in public.
Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: At various times in the past couple months there have been talks about bringing the Gun Violence Reduction Team or something similar back. Where do those talks stand now and do you believe the disbanding of the GVRT had anything to do with the spike in shootings?
Wheeler: The spike that we’re seeing in gun violence and homicides is definitely the city’s top public safety priority right now. First, we’re working on the prevention and intervention side. We have increased the funding through the Office of Violence Prevention that helps us establish more community interactions and work with organizations throughout the community to help reduce gun violence. It tends to spread just like a virus. We treat it the same way as a public health issue. On the second front, we’re working with law enforcement at the federal level, at the state level, with our partners at Multnomah County and of course here in the Portland Police Bureau. We have 11 officers that are now detailed specifically toward gun violence. We’re also working with a consultancy called the California Partnership. They’re helping us to create a comprehensive strategy to reduce gun violence in Portland and I believe that will have a significant impact.
Q: In what ways is this different from the original GVRT?
Wheeler: This is far more comprehensive. I convened recently with several law enforcement partners, our state and our county and other local law enforcement partners and really for the first time working as a cohesive team to address the specific issues around gun violence.
Q: Moving on to protests. It’s been just over a month since you announced several commitments in response to the New Year’s Eve riot. What’s the status of those?
Wheeler: I have in fact convened with our law enforcement at all levels of government. We all have a vested interest in reducing this criminal violence and destruction that we’re seeing … and we’re now collaborating in ways that we didn’t previously. I also have met several times with the District Attorney to clarify what we need to provide in terms of evidence to be able to make strong cases that he can then prosecute. So we’re developing better protocols around providing solid evidence. I’ve also made it clear to the District Attorney that I support restorative justice and by that I mean, not just throwing people in jail, but sometimes having those individuals who break a window at a shop be required to meet with the business owners and some of the employees and hear from them directly what the economic and social costs are of the damage they’ve created. I think that can make an impact particularly with some of these younger kids who are involved in this destruction. Where we have not made progress is on strengthening penalties for repeat offenders and I’m just going to be honest with you, there’s no appetite for it.
Q: When you say there’s no appetite for it, who specifically is not interested?
Wheeler: At all levels of government, from the state, the legislature, the county, local, the push for the last 10 years has actually been to decriminalize and reduce sentences, not go the other way. So my calls for increasing sentences for repeat offenders engaged in criminal destruction, it pretty much has gone nowhere. At some point I just have to acknowledge that it’s no longer worth the energy to keep rolling that rock uphill. It’s not gonna go anywhere.
Q: Let’s talk about the Forbes column that included the line, “Reputation may be Portland’s greatest damage.” Is the writer correct? Does Portland have a reputation problem right now?
Wheeler: Portland does have a reputation problem right now. Where I disagree is I don’t think Portland is dying. A consultancy called Azurite just completed a study and what they found was 54% of businesses in New York, Chicago, LA and San Francisco planned to close or leave. We’re part of a national trend. What we need to do is get past COVID, we need to get people safely back into our business districts. My administration’s top priorities are addressing safety, homelessness and livability. Just since July we’ve cleaned up something like 2,500 tons of litter. We have invested extra resources into graffiti abatement and people are already starting to notice some of that difference. For the most problematic homeless camps that are creating safety, livability, public health or environmental hazards, we’ve removed 125 of those camps and cleaned them up since just this summer and we’re creating more humane alternatives to people living on the streets. And the fewer people living on the streets will obviously help restore some of the reputational damage that we’ve experienced over the last several months.
Q: You recently had to take the unfortunate step of having security with you every time you go out in public. Is this problem unique or indicative of hostility toward politicians in general?
Wheeler: There is definitely a deterioration of civility in our society. I am regularly confronted by constituents. I actually don’t mind engaging with people when I’m out and about, but where I draw the line is violence. I draw the line against people who are trying to inflict personal injury on me or the people I’m with. I draw the line at people coming to my home or coming to other people’s homes and vandalizing those homes because they want somebody to vote on a certain issue a certain way. None of us should accept that as a standard. I have never wanted to have security. I think it’s not the best use of public resources. I will probably never use Portland police officers because there’s already a shortage of officers in the community and I don’t think it’s fair for me as an elected official to lay claim to those resources. So I’ve used pepper spray. But I am now being strongly encouraged by our city’s legal team and others that I should at least use private sector security when I’m out in the community. I will do so. I will do so only when necessary, but unfortunately we’ve come to the point where that’s necessary. I wish it wasn’t but it is.