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'People Are Scared': Portland Faces Surging Gang Violence After Gutting Police Department

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When Oregon’s most populous city had a rampant gang problem 30 years ago, Portland detectives were stunned if they found more than a few dozen bullet casings after a shooting.

Now, police are recording multiple shootings a week with 50 to 70 shots fired, and in one case more than 150, as gang attacks and retaliatory shootings again spiral into a vicious cycle.

There have been 37 homicides in Portland so far this year, more than six times the number recorded in the same period last year. If nothing changes, Portland will surpass its all-time homicide record of 70, set in 1987 when the city was in the midst of a gang siege.

The surge in gang-related shootings only puts the spotlight on a hot-button issue. Violent crime is increasing in major cities across the country as people continue to call for defunding police departments.

Portland saw over 100 consecutive nights of anti-police protests and riots following the death of George Floyd last year.

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Police estimate that half of the city’s 470 shootings this year, which have injured more than 140 people, are gang-related.

Mayor Ted Wheeler warned last month that perpetrators are being told by gangs to shoot someone within 30 days or be shot and that people are traveling from other states to engage in violence in Portland.

“People are scared. They are angry. They are fed up,” Portland Police Sgt. Ken Duilio said.

Portland’s pervasive gang violence in the ’90s — when it was estimated that there were 2,500 people in up to 600 gangs in the area — left a stain on recent city history.

Do you think defunding the police contributed to Portland's rising gun violence?

But now, following the pandemic shutdown and riots, paired with a diminishing police presence, community leaders say the problem has returned.

While the number of shootings is comparable to the ’90s, police and residents say the boldness of the shooters and amount of shots fired surpass what they have seen before. Gangs are also no longer following the typical tit-for-tat pattern in targeting a rival, but instead immediately shooting again.

“You have multiple shooters — that’s kind of a new phenomenon — multiple guns and lots of shots being fired,” said Duilio, adding that more gunshots increase the odds of bystanders being hit, including most recently a newspaper carrier, Uber driver and city bus driver.

“There are a lot of bullets being fired in this area, all over the place,” Duilio said. “But the police bureau is underfunded, understaffed and undersupported.”

The rise in violence comes at a time when the Portland Police Bureau’s staffing is at its lowest level in decades — the department is more than 100 officers short of “authorized strength,” as determined by the city.

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In the past nine months, the department has experienced rapid turnover. Over 120 officers have left the department, many citing low morale and burnout from nightly riots.

During that time, Portland was also experiencing its deadliest year in more than a quarter-century.

Despite police pleas for more personnel, city leaders slashed $27 million from the police budget — $11 million due to a budget crisis and $15 million amid calls to defund the police.

“Police can’t prevent shootings,” Portland activist Royal Harris said. “We as a community have to work together to prevent these things instead of looking at it as a police approach.”

Officials also disbanded a specialized unit focused on curbing gun violence — a decision that some residents are still questioning.

“You took away the gun violence reduction team. There is nobody in this city doing traffic stops of these armed, violent shooters traveling the city looking for their rivals to shoot and who are going to vigils and lighting up an entire crowd,” Duilio said.

Jo Ann Hardesty, a member of the City Council who pushed to cut the unit, maintains eliminating the team last summer was the right decision.

“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,” Hardesty told KOIN last month. “A response to gun violence should not be a knee-jerk reaction.”

But as gun violence continued into 2021, leaders were forced to re-evaluate.

More officers have been assigned to shootings, the police bureau has teamed up with the FBI to investigate crimes and the U.S. attorney for Oregon has ramped up efforts to prosecute gun violence cases.

In addition, City Council voted to create a team of 14 officers to address gun violence, but with no additional funds.

Police Chief Chuck Lovell said the department is “so lean right now” that officials will likely have to pull officers from patrol, domestic violence or human trafficking investigations to support the new team.

Duilio said while funding social services and other organizations is important, it is only a portion of the solution and should not compete with police funding.

“They both need to happen,” Duilio said.

“If you can get a 15-year-old and get him on the right track where he is not involved in shootings every other week, that is great. But to really quell this intense level of violence that we are seeing right now, it is going to take uniform police officers to stop those cars that are traveling from point A to point B for a shooting.”

The Western Journal has reviewed this Associated Press story and may have altered it prior to publication to ensure that it meets our editorial standards.

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