Portland police to halt, purge all gang designations
Police will instead record alleged criminal conduct, which would pop up as a flag and still help alert officers to a potential threat
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland police next month will end their more than 20-year-old practice of designating people as gang members or gang associates in response to strong community concerns about the labels that have disproportionately affected minorities.
The Police Bureau recognizes that the gang designations have led to "unintended consequences'' and served as lifelong barriers for those who have shunned the gang lifestyle and tried to get jobs, said Acting Tactical Operations Capt. Andy Shearer.
Leaders from Black Male Achievement, former police Assistant Chief Kevin Modica and others have lobbied to end the designations.
"Gang violence isn't going to go away. There are still crimes attributed to known gang sets. There are still criminal gang members. That doesn't go away because we don't have a gang designation,'' said Capt. Mike Krantz, who helped spearhead the change. "We're not pretending gang violence doesn't exist. We're just taking this one thing away.''
Krantz said Friday that the Police Bureau has considered ending gang designations for two years as gang enforcement officers met with parole and probation officers, community members and others to figure out the details. They recently got the approval of former Chief Mike Marshman and current Interim Chief Chris Uehara.
The move also comes as city auditors since last fall have closely examined the bureau's Gang Enforcement Team and its work.
Police will send out letters to everyone on the gang list alerting them that the bureau will purge all documents related to the designations. The new policy will take effect Oct. 15.
"It takes courage for the bureau to take this step,'' said C.J. Robbins, program coordinator for Black Male Achievement.
He applauded Modica and others in the bureau who responded to his group's concerns and "acknowledged, 'Hey this is not OK.'"
"This is too long coming,'' said Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as the city's police commissioner. "It was the right thing to do.''
Wheeler, who recently selected the first African American woman to serve as the bureau's new police chief, said the decision shows that city police are committed to rebuilding trust with the community.
The Oregonian/OregonLive review of the controversial gang affiliation database showed that police labeled someone a "criminal gang affiliate'' more than 100 times each year, without a conviction, without an arrest. Police were able to add someone to the list if the person self-identified as a member of a gang, participated in a gang initiation ritual, committed a gang-related crime or displayed two or more observable signs of gang membership.
Those labels would pop up as a red flag when officers ran someone's name on their mobile computer database. Nicknames, employers, schools, vehicles and associates were included in the gang designation reports.
Those reports and flags will no longer exist, Krantz said. Instead, police will record alleged criminal conduct, such as a person's past possession of guns or involvement in a shooting, which may pop up as a flag on a computer screen and still help alert officers to a potential threat.
Police said improved technology by the Oregon State Police and its crime lab, allowing officers to more rapidly compare shell casings or bullets recovered from scenes of shootings, has allowed officers to improve investigations and better track suspects or shootings without a need to identify people as members of a certain gang.
Kirsten Snowden, a Multnomah County chief deputy district attorney, said the change shouldn't affect prosecutions stemming from gang violence. Prosecutors still will have to present evidence through other means if they want to prove a certain crime was motivated by gang rivalries, for example.
Roberta Phillip-Robbins, executive director of MRG Foundation that works for social justice and against racial inequities, asked police what steps they're taking to get rid of "other forms of profiling?''
Shearer said officers are instructed and trained to focus on the crime not the person to investigate violent crimes.
The Gang Enforcement Team and its officers who respond immediately to investigate shootings or stabbings will continue in its role. This year, it has responded to 81 shootings, assaults or stabbings, a roughly 25 percent drop compared to the same period last year.
"There are still certain characteristics of gang-involved shootings,'' Krantz said. "Was there 30 shots and no one stuck around? Was it a drive-by shooting?''
Police are noticing more shots fired at each shooting. About 3:40 a.m. Tuesday, for example, a house that wasn't the intended target was sprayed with 28 gunshots and two more shots struck its front fence. Remarkably, no one was injured, police said.
With no state laws other than racketeering statutes that prohibit illegal activity by an organized criminal enterprise, police asked, "Why do we have gang designations?'' Krantz said.
"What we're really investigating is the violent crime,'' he said.
Yet Krantz said some officers have expressed concerns about the decision, and how it will impact their work.
Choo Fair, who works as a mentor for Multnomah County probation and parole and is a former Bloods gang member, praised the move.
"It's a beautiful thing. They can no longer label anybody,'' he said.
He expects it also will affect county parole and probation officers, who sometimes find an offender in violation of their probation because they continued to hang out with known gang members.
©2017 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)