Portland police chief backs gun team, ShotSpotter, more staffing to curb violence

“They’re going after the people who have guns, who are shooting other people,” Police Chief Chuck Lovell said


By Zane Sparling
oregonlive.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — The special police squad charged with curbing gun violence has the full backing of Police Chief Chuck Lovell — despite the city’s record number of homicides and the unit’s role in three shootings by its officers, one of them fatal.

The Focused Intervention Team has been under the microscope since it launched in January, with critics saying it’s merely a reconstitution of the Gang Enforcement and Gun Violence Reduction teams that were disbanded after accusations of racial profiling.

In May, four members of the team shot and wounded a motorist who had shot at them, according to court documents, and a FIT officer fatally shot Aaron Stanton after he began shooting into the air outside his house and then pointed a gun at responding police, according to a witness, in the Hazelwood neighborhood on July 27. Members of the team also fired on a man who barricaded himself inside an auto repair shop in August, but missed.

Lovell said the team is well-trained and that such encounters were hardly unexpected, adding that city leaders supported creating the team as long as it had a community oversight group to monitor its performance.

“They’re going after the people who have guns, who are shooting other people,” he said. “It’s no surprise that they’ve been involved in some shootings.”

Other potential solutions are still coalescing, he said, citing the unarmed mental health triage teams known as Portland Street Response. The program expanded citywide in March and expects to extend its hours of operations once a final class of trainees is hired in early November.

“What we’re seeing so far is promising,” Lovell said. “But I still don’t think that they’ve really hit their growth goals.”

Lovell, who will turn 49 in December and recently became a stepgrandfather, went on a media blitz this week, sitting for one-on-one interviews Wednesday with 10 outlets from the 15th-floor executive offices inside the Central Precinct downtown.

The city’s 50th police chief clearly was working to change the narrative around the wave of retirements and departures that have sapped the department since 2020, leaving dozens of positions unfilled and the Police Bureau’s head count at its lowest point in decades.

During a City Council meeting Aug. 31, Mayor Ted Wheeler publicly condemned a common refrain from Lovell and police officers to the public — that they’re understaffed — in reply to criticism about slow response times, rising thefts of cars and catalytic converters, street racing, property crime and gun violence.

Lovell said the exchange, which included an expletive by Wheeler, was taken out of context, saying both he and the mayor agree that the bureau lacks officers.

“The community has to know where you sit as an organization. But they should also know we’re going to do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said. “There’s still a lot of people who love the city, love working here and more who want to come work here. We’re really hopeful about that.”

To combat dispatcher delays, the City Council this week approved double-time pay for 911 operators through the end of the fiscal year. Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who oversees dispatchers, said the costs would be covered by the Bureau of Emergency Communication’s existing budget.

Lovell said he supports the body-worn camera pilot program currently hung up by union negotiations, saying the majority of the rank-and-file want to wear cameras. The Portland Police Association didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

He said it would be “prudent” for Portland to test out the ShotSpotter program that detects gunfire through microphones placed in public areas. The system has been criticized by activists as error-prone and an expansion of audio surveillance in minority neighborhoods.

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The chief’s comments come as a poll commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive found that voters cited crime as a top-of-mind concern as they ponder who to pick for governor and other offices in November.

Lovell said long-term solutions are complex, joking that he’d be a “highly paid consultant” if he had all the answers.

But the police chief acknowledged that crime concerns are real, saying that drug decriminalization has presented “some challenges” and noting gun violence has become widespread among homeless people who in the past hadn’t had such easy access to guns.

Last weekend, four people died in homicides over 24 hours, putting Portland on pace to surpass last year’s record 92 homicides. They included three people believed to be experiencing homelessness; two died in stabbings and one in a shooting.

Lovell said some Portlanders’ frustration with the quick release of people accused of crimes is understandable, but said the Police Bureau ultimately has little sway over charging or bail decisions, though they are responsible for the quality of investigations.

“It is frustrating to arrest the same person over and over for the same thing,” Lovell said. “But I think the best we can do is make those arrests.”

His interview occurred before the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office moved to file a more serious assault charge against a man who was released from custody on a misdemeanor last week after allegedly beating a woman. He was arrested in a fatal stabbing in Old Town one day after his release.

Prosecutors now say the original assault wasn’t thoroughly investigated by police, with crucial video evidence left uncollected. Police have launched an internal investigation into the matter.

Lovell appears sanguine about his role as the city’s top cop. He said he never sought the job in the first place — he was promoted in 2020 as social justice protests hit the city — but considers policing an essential public service regardless of rank.

“It doesn’t matter what’s on your collar,” Lovell said, pointing to the four stars framing his neck. “If I were another rank tomorrow, I’d still be serving the people of Portland.”

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