68 people slain in Portland this year amid wave of violence
Police say that 18 dedicated homicide detectives aren't enough
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND, Ore. — The survival rules posted by gang outreach worker Lionel Irving Jr. on Facebook starkly spell out the danger for people most at risk of dying in Portland’s daunting surge of gun violence this year:
1. Don’t sit in cars kicking it. 2. Get EVERYTHING you need and get to your destination. 3. Keep your eyes and ears open! Watch your surroundings instead of running your mouth. 4. Know who you’re hanging with and what they’re up to. 5. Google numbers, order your food ahead of time, don’t sit in local spots.
Irving’s advice reflects a pervasive unease that has settled over Portland this year as the city continues on a pace — now 68 killings — to surpass the most violent year in its modern history — 1987, when 70 people were killed.
The victims since January range from an infant who allegedly died at the hands of his father to a 77-year-old woman killed in a hit-and-run rampage.
But a stunning pattern of sudden, sometimes indiscriminate shootings sets this wave apart. Guns have accounted for three-quarters of the homicides, according to an analysis by The Oregonian/OregonLive.
Fatal shootings in almost all sections of the city have followed fistfights, social media disputes, and drug deals gone bad. People sitting in cars, relaxing after work with friends in a bar, attending house parties or walking in a park have been shot dead.
Forensic analysis of spent bullet casings from crime scenes reveals connections between many of the shootings, pointing to gangs and retaliation as frequent drivers of the gun violence, investigators say.
The boldness of the shooters — marked by scores of bullets often fired at a single scene — hasn’t let up since an alarming spike first seen last year as the coronavirus pandemic took hold. In five of the shootings, two or more people have been killed.
The violence has disproportionately affected people of color — more than half of those who have been killed are Black, Latino or Asian.
The toll has been greatest among Portland’s Black residents. Black homicide victims outnumber all other victims of color by far and are nearly as numerous as white victims in the overwhelmingly white city.
The homicide rate for Black people this year is nearly eight times higher than for white people, based on their population in Portland. More than three-fourths of Black homicide victims were men in their 20s, 30s and 40s and all but two of them died in shootings.
As with other U.S. cities experiencing escalating gun violence, Portland faces fallout from easy access to guns, coronavirus-shuttered safety nets like after-school programs, and a distrust of police following last year’s killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Mayor Ted Wheeler has called the shootings an epidemic. City Councilor Mingus Mapps, who is Black, characterized the gun violence as a “cancer in our city.”
Yet the shootings have defied police, political and community attempts to slow the bloodshed. Nothing has seemed to work: not public appeals, marches, billboards and some stepped-up gun investigations.
The elimination of a special police Gun Violence Reduction Team last year without an immediate alternative has led to a prolonged debate and has mired attempts at a strong, unified response to the violence.
Irving and others said they’re frustrated by the lack of urgency among city leaders.
“They’re wringing their hands … while we’re writing obituaries,” he said.
From January through the end of September, police counted a total of 943 shootings that killed or injured 307 people. That compares to 488 shootings and 126 people killed or injured in all of last year.
During that same period, police recovered 4,909 bullet casings. That compares to 4,652 in all of 2020.
“That’s insane,” said Sgt. Mark Friedman, supervisor of six detectives who investigate shootings that cause injuries. “Those bullets have to go somewhere. It amazes me we don’t have more people catching stray rounds.’’
The city has spent six months trying to create a new team of uniformed officers to spend more time on the street, but that team has yet to be formed.
Police have devoted more homicide detectives to the crisis but the bureau’s uniformed presence across the city has been reduced by retirements and resignations.
Witnesses often scatter and are reluctant to share information with police, fearful for their safety. As a result, police have arrested or identified suspects in less than half of all the homicides.
The city has distributed or is about to distribute $3 million to a handful of existing programs aimed at expanding services in neighborhoods most affected by gun violence. It has another $1.4 million for new programs waiting in the wings.
In the meantime, families are left to mourn their sons, daughters, fathers and mothers as makeshift memorials pop up at shooting scenes most often in Northeast, Southeast and North Portland.
Police found 20-year-old Alexzander Hensey’s body near the top of Rocky Butte in early summer. He lived in Vancouver and had a 1-year-old daughter.
His mother, Michelle Hensey, learned of his death when she called him on the morning of June 28 and Portland police answered his cellphone. They asked her to describe her son’s tattoos, then told her he had been killed.
It’s not clear what led to Hensey’s shooting. His family said he went to meet someone.
“We were not done watching him grow,” said his stepmother, Jennifer Leevers. “Our lives will never be the same.”
SHOOTINGS SHOW NO SIGNS OF LET-UP
2021 wasn’t two days old before the city recorded its first homicide — a 22-year-old gun owner accidentally killed his older brother when he forgot the revolver he had recently bought was loaded as he handled it.
The latest was a 41-year-old man shot at a house early Oct. 1 in Southeast Portland.
During the months in between, a 42-year-old man got into a fistfight and was gunned down on the edge of a busy North Portland park in a brazen afternoon attack that sent people scattering for cover.
A 33-year-old man was shot in the back of the head while visiting a pizza cart in a suspected gang-related hit in Northeast Portland.
Less than two weeks later, a 17-year-old Vancouver boy was left dead on a quiet street in outer Northeast Portland, shot, run over by a car and abandoned until neighbors discovered his body the next morning. The motive remains a mystery.
Five teenagers from ages 17 to 19 have been fatally shot this year.
Homicides in Portland have fluctuated over the decades, but they mostly have remained far lower than the 1987 peak before jumping last year to 55.
Overall, Portland’s homicides are lower compared to many similar-sized cities. The city’s per-capita rate is actually lower now than the record-setting year, when Portland’s population was much smaller.
In the past, domestic violence and robberies, drug deals or drunken fights led to many more of the killings.
“A double homicide used to be a rare occurrence,” said Portland police Sgt. Joseph Santos, a supervisor of homicide detectives.
Not this year, as 12 people have died in four double homicides and one quadruple homicide, all shootings.
Fights among people experiencing homelessness also have fueled some of the killings, Santos said.
At least four people living on the street or near homeless camps were fatally shot, three others were stabbed and one was beaten, stabbed and burned to death.
Arguments between people experiencing homelessness historically have involved knives or other weapons, but guns are now more common, Santos said.
Disrespectful posts online also have precipitated killings.
“A lot of the shootings are just over trivial stuff — where they’re calling each other out over social media” and then cascading retaliatory shootings erupt, said Friedman, the sergeant overseeing shooting investigations.
In mid-June, a feud that played out first on Snapchat and Instagram between young men and their respective girlfriends led to a late-night car chase and a fatal shooting, according to police and prosecutors.
A 19-year-old man, Alexander Martinson, was struck in the back of the head by a bullet during the chase. He was in the back seat as another man hung out the window of the car behind him and fired, according to court documents.
In addition to murder charges, the alleged gunman and the driver are accused of tampering with witnesses, trying to convince them to hide evidence, delete their social media posts and not to talk to police, the court records said.
BYSTANDERS, NEIGHBORS, FAMILIES CAUGHT IN MIDDLE
Innocent bystanders have gotten caught in the crossfire, with errant bullets striking apartments and cars and sometimes flying through the walls of homes, narrowly missing people inside.
In July, a bullet hit 18-year-old Makayla Harris in the chest in a suspected drive-by shooting that also wounded six others near a downtown food cart pod. Harris died at a hospital. She had graduated a month earlier from Grant High School.
The gunshots apparently were intended for a young man involved in gangs who was standing nearby, Harris’ relatives and police said.
In June, a man watering his lawn was shot in the ankle by an errant bullet in Southeast Portland.
In September, a Portland high school teacher was hit in the face by a fragment from a bullet that pierced the wall of her bedroom as she slept. She survived.
The next week, shots were fired at two Portland park rangers traveling in a city-owned truck between parks in Southeast Portland. They escaped injury, as did a nearby woman and her son in the same shooting when a bullet flew through their back window and exited out the windshield, narrowly missing both.
An afternoon barrage stunned Constantino “Tino” Lopez in July. He lives in a corner apartment on the northwest side of Northeast 127th Avenue and Burnside Street.
Lopez said his roommate had come home from work and was in the bathroom “when a bullet flew right by him.” The bullet entered through the shower, whizzed by his roommate’s face while he was on the toilet, continued through the bathroom door and pierced Lopez’s bedroom closet.
Lopez said he stumbled on the bullet in his bedroom as he went to see what happened.
Three people had walked up and fired at a car on Lopez’s block and the occupants fired back, said police Acting Lt. Ken Duilio. About 45 shots rang out.
Lopez’s apartment is in Hazelwood, where the most shootings — 47 — occurred in the first half of the year, police data shows. The next hardest-hit neighborhoods were Powellhurst-Gilbert, Centennial and Lents.
MANY SHOOTINGS CONNECTED
Officer Charles Asheim, a member of the Enhanced Community Safety Team that investigates injury shootings, estimated that at least 60% of all the shootings in Portland are somehow connected, acts of retaliation between different sets of gangs.
The gangs most active have been subsets of the Rolling 60 Crips, the Bloods and Hoovers, as well as the relatively newer gangs called Young Come Ups, made up of East African, Latino, Asian and white members, and Jump Out Gang, a subset of the local Woodlawn Bloods, he said.
Their members are carrying guns more frequently and openly, unafraid to be pulled over as police make fewer minor traffic stops and fewer officers are on the street dedicated to following up on shootings, he said.
Police also are noticing more shootings at vigils held for homicide victims.
Shawndell DeShazo, 28, was among three people shot outside an apartment in Northeast Portland in February. DeShazo, who had gang ties, died at a hospital. The other two people, never identified by police, survived. DeShazo’s mother said he was attending a candlelight vigil. Police have made no arrests in his killing.
“Gangs build their power by their willingness to do violence. If someone has hurt you on your side, you’re going to want to retaliate,” Asheim said.
The extent of the retaliation alarms police. Shooters aren’t waiting for the typical “tit-for-tat” targeting of a rival, police said. Instead, they’re actively seeking people from opposing groups to shoot regardless of whether their rivals have struck back in the meantime.
And the shooters are being less selective, going after associates of gang members, not just known gang members, Irving said. He started the nonprofits Men Building Men and Love Is Stronger after serving nearly 15 years in prison for cocaine distribution and fatally shooting an unintended target, a 14-year-old boy, in Tacoma in 1991.
The widespread use of social media by gang members, who sometimes post videos of their shootings or taunts to rivals, only exacerbates the anger on the streets, Irving said.
“Everybody wants to be famous. You see guys posing with guns, posting videos of shootouts,” he said. “The information age has added a whole new layer to this gang member lifestyle.”
Several sons of former veteran gang members have been gunned down this year – JaMarie Herring and Jalon Yoakum, for example – even if they weren’t actively involved in the lifestyle.
“Gang banging is a generational curse,” Irving said.
BULLETS SOW FEAR, ANGER
The proliferation of gun violence has heightened fear and frustration in many corners of the city. It has also angered those most affected, particularly when witnesses won’t talk to investigators and police haven’t made arrests.
Maria McNack’s nephew Titus McNack was shot on the sidewalk along the south edge of North Portland’s Dawson Park on a busy afternoon in March. She said she’s disgusted no one has come forward to identify the shooter.
She said she learned her nephew had been there only 10 minutes when someone approached him, they started throwing punches and someone fired at McNack.
“How can you shoot somebody in a park full of people and they’re still not in jail? It was broad daylight,” she said. “People were playing cards and dominoes feet from the shooting. That’s crazy!”
In Old Town, Michael De Maria, a night supervisor at the Society Hotel, said he hears gunshots nightly.
In late August near the hotel, multiple shooters unleashed at least 50 bullets. They targeted a vigil outside the Mingle Lounge, where 25-year-old JaMarie Herring had been killed hours earlier during a bar fight.
Five people were wounded in the vigil shooting, all men ages 21 to 32. The hotel’s security cameras caught the burst of gunfire. Police suspect some of the rapid-fire shots heard on the audio came from a semi-automatic pistol transformed into an automatic gun.
“Every time I think it’s over, it happens again,” De Maria said afterward.
When guests ask him if it’s safe to walk in the neighborhood, De Maria said he’s unsure what to say. He doesn’t want to generate fear and panic.
“Ah, you know, it’s the city,” he said he tells them. “I don’t know if I should say yes anymore, because it’s not.”
AWASH IN GUNS
The availability and sheer number of guns on the street have changed the nature of disputes. People appear more willing to reach for a pistol to settle an argument, crime trends show.
Police trace every gun recovered in the city with help from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. They recovered almost 900 guns this year through the end of September, compared to about 800 recovered all of last year.
Though police suspect most of the guns used in these shootings are obtained illegally, soaring gun purchases in Oregon and nationally in the past year reflect an overall trend of more people with access to guns.
Oregon State Police in 2020 conducted 418,061 background checks on gun buyers — the highest volume in the history of the agency’s Firearms Instant Check System with record-breaking days and weeks throughout the year.
Many of the same guns are being used in different shootings in Portland, either by repeat shooters or by being passed around between shooters, Friedman said.
At the vigil outside the Mingle Lounge, for example, casings found there linked a number of the guns to several earlier shootings, he said.
Police have even seen guns that Blood gang members fired against their rivals end up being used in another shooting several weeks later — this time by the other side, a Crip firing at a Blood, Friedman said.
“The crime guns move back and forth in the black market,” he said. Some are stolen in burglaries and car break-ins or transferred illegally through straw purchases when a person buys the gun for someone barred from having guns, he said.
People charged with being a felon in possession of a gun who don’t have a violent criminal record often get released and placed on pretrial supervision and then, if convicted, are sentenced to probation, police said
If they do have extensive records, federal prosecutors pursue some of the felon-with-gun cases, including one recently that involved the removal of a machine gun from the streets — a .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic pistol modified into an automatic.
Federal prosecutor Paul Maloney said the gun was altered with what’s called a Glock Switch or a Glock Auto Sear.
“We are now seeing machine guns used in retaliatory shootings,” Maloney told a judge.
‘LOOK IN THE MIRROR’
The city can’t let this year’s gun violence “become the norm,” Tony Hopson Sr. told a crowd this summer at a Unity in the Community event in a Northeast Portland park.
The longtime director of the largest Black-led nonprofit in Oregon, Self Enhancement Inc., has repeatedly called on police, Portland leaders, the city at large and his fellow Black residents to do their part to stop the shootings.
A social service network including schools and nonprofits must reach kids from an early age to keep them away from destructive behavior, Hopson told the crowd. Government agencies must better fund community-based agencies to provide after-school programs, internships and job opportunities for young people, he said.
Schools must “find more people that look like us” to work with young students “so they don’t end up getting pushed out of school,” Hopson said.
Lastly, he said, Black people must look in the mirror.
“We need to hold ourselves accountable,” he said, “and we need to hold our people accountable, whether that’s your brother, your sister ... your cousin, whomever it is that you know is involved in this kind of activity.”
Statistics for the last three years in Multnomah County show Black people were overrepresented as both victims and defendants in gun cases handled by the District Attorney’s Office: 24% as victims and 39% as defendants. Black people or people identifying as Black in combination with another race make up 8% of the county’s population, according to the most recent census data.
Lakayana Drury, executive director of the nonprofit Word is Bond, last spring drafted his own plan to address the spike in shootings. Drury’s group strives to improve relations between young Black men and police.
He wants to identify potential shooters and those involved in petty crimes or gangs from ages 16 to 30, then support them with a monthly $1,000 stipend for two years. They would have to get job training for a trade, mentoring and mental health support during that time.
Dondrae “Choo” Fair, a former gang member who mentors others, said he got a call in mid-August that one of the young men he had been working with had been shot. He drove to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center and learned it was JaMarie Herring, who died after being shot at Mingle Lounge.
Fair had known Herring since he was a boy but about five years ago, Herring’s name came across his desk when Fair was a counselor for Volunteers of America. Herring had been placed on probation for criminal mischief and possessing a gun as a felon.
Herring loved to write so Fair encouraged him to draft his goals. Herring started to write rap music and make videos. He went by the monikers Big Greaze or Greezy.
“I don’t think police can stop this problem,” Fair said. “It’s going to take Black people who have been in this life that want to do something to help the people get out of this lifestyle.
“We can’t tell people to stop doing things without a plan,” he said. “We need to help young people learn skills, learn some trades and find opportunities.”
Nineteen-year-old Ja’Mari Etherly, who has been involved in the Word is Bond program, said he’s worked to set a good example for his younger brothers and sister and believes that’s how positive influence begins — through peers who can engage with people their own age.
He said he was saddened that two young men he knew were among those killed this year: Martinson, shot in the head during the car chase, and Calvin Jackson III, 20, found dead in North Portland in April with no information about what happened.
Etherly has turned to the boxing ring, practicing and competing in a sport he’s loved since middle school, and is starting school this fall at Portland Community College. He also interned over the summer in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
“I like gaining things from what I do,” Etherly said, “not losing.”
HOMICIDE DETECTIVES OVERWHELMED
Portland police have added more detectives to their homicide unit to bring the total up to 18 instead of 10, the standard for at least two decades. But they’re still struggling to keep up.
From July 2020 through June 2021, each homicide detective has been the primary investigator on nine to 10 homicides. Historically, primary investigators would manage three a year.
Santos, the homicide detectives supervisor, said the 18 detectives still aren’t enough to handle the volume of cases. “Because of this we have to prioritize cases and work the cases that have viable leads,” he said.
So far this year, the clearance rate — or percentage of cases that resulted in arrests, warrants or an identified suspect — is about 42%.
That usually rises by the end of a year, as police make arrests in older cases. Nationally, the solve rate for murder in 2020, the year with the latest figures from the FBI, was 54%. Portland’s rate that year was 47%.
Other big U.S. cities — New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Memphis and Phoenix, among them – also are experiencing a significant increase in shootings and homicides.
Murders rose over 35% in 2020 in cities with populations over 250,000, according to the FBI. While homicides are still up in major cities this year, the rate of increase appears to be slowing down — but not in Portland, Las Vegas, Chicago, Milwaukee, Oakland or Austin, early figures indicate.
Nationally, the primary driver of the homicide rates appears to be the same as in earlier years: community gun violence involving young men with guns who are without a lot of opportunities or guidance, said Richard Rosenfeld, a past president of the American Society of Criminology and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The pandemic added further stress, closing schools, creating economic uncertainty and imposing distancing restrictions that made it more difficult to keep tabs on offenders on probation.
Criminal justice experts also point to reduced confidence in police, especially among disadvantaged, minority communities, as well as reluctance by police to do traffic stops or proactive policing that could draw public censure.
All of those factors are playing out in Portland, where some people have been killed in random acts of violence or when they stumbled upon others committing crimes.
One man was fatally shot in North Portland while waiting for his girlfriend outside a convenience store as teens emerged with stolen cases of beer. Another man was killed near Cathedral Park after he tried to stop a car prowler in the lot where he worked.
At least three people are accused of intentionally running down others with their cars, including a woman charged with killing her ex-husband in a Fred Meyer parking lot.
He was one of at least four suspected domestic violence victims. The others are a baby, a 29-year-old woman shot in the back of the head as she sat on a patio and a 30-year-old new mother.
Along with the climbing homicides, other violent crime in the city rose in the first half of the year: rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults were up compared to the same period in 2020, according to FBI figures. Portland’s property crimes, including burglaries, motor vehicle thefts and arsons also increased during that same time, the FBI said.
Portland police officers have fatally shot three people. Two had a history of mental illness — Robert Delgado in Lents Park said to be doing “quick-draws” with what turned out to be an orange-tipped replica gun and Michael Townsend, who rushed at an officer holding a tire repair tool after calling police for help.
Police killed a third man, Alexander Tadros, after he fired shots when federal agents tried to serve a search warrant at his apartment. The man wounded a Portland officer in the hip before he was killed. Narcotics agents later found drugs in Tadros’ apartment, according to court records.
The deadly police shootings are up from last year, when there were none, but down from 2019, when police shot and killed five people.
A grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing by police in the shootings of Delgado and Townsend. The shooting of Tadros remains under investigation by police and prosecutors.
RESPONSE SLOW TO BUILD
Mapps, who joined the City Council this year, recently set a specific goal for the city to reduce gun violence as a philosophical and budget stalemate has paralyzed police and political action.
The bureau has 128 vacancies out of a budgeted force of 919 sworn officers.
“The criminals are winning,” he said at a virtual town hall he hosted in mid-September.
He backs the city’s main answer — a replacement for the disbanded Gun Violence Reduction Team — but it remains a shaky work in progress. The City Council cut the team last year under criticism that officers disproportionately stopped people of color.
The mayor, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner, has endorsed creating a similar team of uniformed officers to identify and go after frequent shooters — with a new layer of community oversight to track the team’s performance.
Six months later, though, the Police Bureau still hasn’t found enough officers willing to staff the 14-member Focused Intervention Team. Assistant Chief Jami Resch has said some officers were uncertain about the oversight group’s expectations and concerned they wouldn’t get city support.
As of Oct. 1, five officers had applied for the team’s two sergeant positions and two have been selected but are still awaiting final review by the chief. The community oversight group and police plan to post a new job description for officers and aim to have the team ready to launch by late November.
Mapps has called for a 20% reduction in shootings in 15 months and for more money to hire more police.
The disproportionate number of homicide victims of color “is upsetting and unacceptable,’’ he said.
Yet, he said, that imbalance isn’t new.
“Due to many societal factors, neighborhoods that are currently getting hammered by gunfire are also the most diverse,” Mapps said. “City Council needs to support our Police Bureau in addressing this violence.
“Every Portlander,” he said, “deserves to be safe.”
Among some of the collective efforts, Portland police are working with the FBI and other agencies on a Metro Safe Streets Task Force to build cases against people suspected in some of the recent shootings.
Multnomah County probation officers have planned “call-in” meetings with gang offenders on supervision to push for a cease-fire.
The county’s health department plans to start a seven-person response team of mental health clinicians to help gun violence victims and their families deal with the trauma.
Irving is on the oversight group for the new gun violence team, mainly because he wants to ensure police go after the most dangerous people instead of casting wide nets for associates of suspected criminals as he believes they’ve done in the past.
Prosecutors and police, he and others said, also must do more to protect people who come forward with information to identify shooters because they rightfully fear retribution. Victim advocates in the District Attorney’s Office are overwhelmed trying to meet the demands of families most affected by the violence and cite limited resources to offer protection for witnesses.
And when people are convicted of gun crimes, Irving said prosecutors should provide a detailed reform plan for them in prison so they’re ready upon release to lead a more productive life.
“Too many have died already,” he said. “When somebody dies, that’s when new shooters are developed. We, the community, we’ve waited too long for action. We’re still waiting for action.”
Police ask anyone who has information on any of the unsolved homicides to call Homicide Detail supervisors Sgt. Joseph Santos at 503-823-0406 or Sgt. Michele Hughes at 503-823-0417.
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