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Portland leaders to re-establish anti-gun violence unit

Police Chief Chuck Lovell said he’s unsure which officers will do the work or how the bureau will pay for them

Portland, Ore., Police Chief Chuck Lovell

In this Aug. 30, 2020, file photo, Portland, Ore., Police Chief Chuck Lovell speaks during a news conference in Portland, Ore.

Sean Meagher/The Oregonian via AP, File

By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — Moments after the City Council gave the green light — but no extra money — to bring back a uniformed police team to address gun violence, Police Chief Chuck Lovell said he’s unsure which officers will do the work or how the bureau will pay for them.

Lovell said he expects the new Focused Intervention Team, or FIT, will be made up of 12 officers and two sergeants.

“We’re so lean right now,” he said. “There’s not many other places to pull from. ... Being able to do this means greatly impacting our ability to do something else.”

The Police Bureau has tentatively identified pulling officers from patrol, domestic violence or human trafficking investigations, as well as using overtime to support the new team.

But Lovell said his options are limited after having to shift officers earlier this year from the traffic division, narcotics enforcement and canine units to fill patrol shifts.

“Figuring out where we can move things without, you know, totally decimating some other piece of work is tricky,” he said.

The idea is to have the team work seven days a week to do proactive enforcement directed by police intelligence to get guns off the streets, identify people involved in recent shootings and “interrupt the cycle of violence,” according to a bureau memo. Deputy Chief Chris Davis has estimated that would take 30 to 45 days to set up.

[READ: Foot patrol works. More of it will reduce violence.]

Lovell said he also wants to make sure he selects the right officers for the team and they have an opportunity to learn what the community’s expectations are for the team’s work.

“I think it’s important for us as the Police Bureau to make sure we pick the right people to do this work, and we give them the right preparation to do this work,” he said. “Make sure they have all their equity training, make sure they have some time to work together before we put them out on the street.”

Lovell acknowledged that some officers may be reluctant to participate on the team in light of the heightened scrutiny and criticism of the Police Bureau’s former Gun Violence Reduction Team. The City Council eliminated the team last June as part of a $15 million cut to the police budget, citing concerns about its disproportionate stops of people of color.

“This is highly scrutinized dangerous work,” Lovell said. “We’ve had different efforts to combat this before that were met with scrutiny. There are a lot of great people who did a lot of really good work, got guns off the street, had good relationships with people, and the work was criticized. I think people remember that, and they’re mindful of that and they wonder like what would that mean for me in my career if this were to happen again.”

Mayor Ted Wheeler initially sought $2 million to restore the team but the rest of the City Council didn’t want to provide any more money to the Police Bureau. Instead, the council unanimously set aside $4.1 million for community-based violence intervention and support programs, plus $1.4 million to add 24 more seasonal park rangers in the city.

Under the council ordinance passed Wednesday, a community oversight committee would be created to help set parameters for the new uniformed team and to analyze and track its stops and arrests. The council approved $120,000 for a full-time crime analyst to work with the committee.

Details on who will sit on the committee and when it will be in place are still to be worked out, according to the mayor’s office.

“As police commissioner, the responsibility falls to the mayor’s office,” said Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for Wheeler. “We will move as quickly as possible to collaborate with community members and council to launch a robust oversight program.”

The Police Bureau has 818 sworn members, including 563 officers, and is under a hiring freeze. There are 98 vacancies with six more officers planning to retire this month and about a dozen who have applied to other agencies and are in the background check phase. In July 2022, another 88 officers will be eligible to retire.

While the Police Bureau received no funding Wednesday for its strategy to reduce gun violence, its budget request for the fiscal year beginning in July asks the city to add back $5.4 million to hire 39 officers.

So far this year, there have been at least 284 shooting calls. Ninety-one people have been injured in shootings. Twenty-five people have died in homicides, including 18 in shootings. If the pace of shootings continues as is, the city could reach a record 100 homicides, far above the city’s peak of 70 homicides in 1987.

Susan Peters, the mother of one of the men gunned down this year, addressed the City Council earlier Wednesday.

She said her son, William “Billy” Peters, 40, had left the Acropolis bar in Southeast Portland and that he and his friends were going to their truck on Feb. 27 when another vehicle pulled up behind them and three men fired at them.

Billy Peters and his friends weren’t armed, she said. She told council members that she believes the shooters responsible were involved in gang violence. Another man with the group also died after the shooting. No arrests have been made.

“My son was left on the pavement” and died at the scene, Susan Peters said. Adam David-Lawrence Arrambide, 36, was taken to a hospital, where he died.

“I want it to stop,” she said, “and I want to be part of the solution because everybody lost that night.”

(c)2021 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)