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Portland Police struggles to fill gun violence prevention team

Many officers haven’t shown interest because they’re unsure what will be expected of them, officials said

portland police downtown shooting

Police investigate an overnight shooting in downtown Portland on Saturday, July 17, 2021.

Mark Graves

By Maxine Bernstein

PORTLAND, Ore. — As Portland’s homicide count continues to mount with a mass shooting in downtown Saturday that killed a teenager and injured at least six others, the Police Bureau’s effort to set up a new uniformed team of officers to address gun violence remains a challenge.

Police have had little success in finding two sergeants and 12 officers to sign up for the duty – a linchpin in the city’s effort to try to stop gun violence before it happens or at least lessen its surging pace.

So far, about three officers have volunteered for the positions. Police leaders have worked to recruit one sergeant to join the team.

The bureau has put out a job description but many officers haven’t shown any interest because they’re unsure of what will be expected of them, said Assistant Police Chief Jami Resch, who oversees the investigations branch.

The uniformed squad, dubbed the Focused Intervention Team, is designed to fight gun violence proactively with a patrol presence on Portland streets. The plan has been to have the team cover seven days a week to get guns off the street directed by police intelligence, identify people involved in recent shootings and “interrupt the cycle of violence,” according to a bureau memo. In April, the bureau estimated it would take 30 to 45 days to set up.

A key component is to have a 12-member community oversight group to monitor the team’s actions. The city has moved forward and selected 12 people to serve as members of the group.

Resch said officers have “a lot of questions” about the community group’s role in their work.

“What they’re wanting to know is what is the oversight and what are the expectations of them,” Resch said, recently talking to the community group. “What is actually going to be their job.”

Officers are very aware that many residents and city councilors don’t want police to recreate the Gun Violence Reduction Team or its precursor, the Gang Enforcement Team, Resch said.

The city disbanded the Gun Violence Reduction Team last year as part of a $15 million cut to the police budget, citing concerns about its disproportionate stops of people of color.

The officers are seeking guidance from the community on what it wants the officers to do or not do, Resch said. “Which I think is a reasonable question to ask. … They don’t want to fail. So they’re very cautious.”

The job description, drafted with the help of the Police Bureau’s equity manager, says the team’s officers will work primarily in uniform and use “community-informed and data-led tactics” to intervene directly with those identified to be at the highest risk of gun violence as a victim or perpetrator.

Individuals at highest risk will be identified through investigative leads from the Police Bureau’s Enhanced Community Safety Team, which largely investigates shootings, as well as a still-unhired crime analyst, community service organizations and relationships developed with confidential informants, the description says.

They’ll respond to shootings, initiate preliminary investigations and contact people associated with shootings to determine those involved, it says. Along with enforcement, they’ll refer people to support services.

“I think once we have a better idea of what this group is, it would be very helpful to bring your information, your mission and your desires of this team to the bureau so that the officers kind of know what is going to be expected of them,” Resch told the community oversight group.

Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell, during a Saturday afternoon news conference after the downtown shooting and a separate fatal shooting in Northeast Portland, made brief references to the Focused Intervention Team as part of the city’s overall strategy, but didn’t note that it has yet to be formed or start operating.

“What we need is a plan,” said Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner. The gun violence has escalated since last summer.

“This really exploded in the last year or so. It’s a pandemic, and it needs to be addressed with adequate resources,” Wheeler said. “It’s pretty obvious from where I sit we do not have the adequate resources deployed on our streets in a proactive way.”

In the past 38 hours, the chief said there had been 11 shootings, resulting in 13 people wounded or killed.

The two killings Saturday pushed Portland’s homicide toll to 52 this year. Last year, Portland recorded a total of 55 homicides – and that was the most the city had seen in 26 years. More than three-fourths of the homicides this year resulted from shootings.

According to city figures, the homicide victims in the first six months of the year were disproportionately Black at 47%. Less than 10 % of the city’s residents identify as Black. White people made up 34% of the victims, Latinos 13% and Pacific Islanders 5%. The race of the others isn’t known.

A presentation at the community oversight group’s meeting Thursday listed its mission as providing “insight, input and oversight” to “ensure effective, fair and equitable” police interventions to reduce local gun violence.

The community group is to have its own analyst to help the members evaluate police bureau data on gun violence and the new uniformed team’s encounters in the community. Mike Myer, the city’s new community safety director, last week was finalizing the job description for the analyst position.

Sgt. Kevin Allen said after this latest spate of violence that the seemingly reluctant officer interest in the team doesn’t offer the full picture.

“There are a lot of conversations happening that aren’t reflected in the sign-ups,” said Allen, a bureau spokesman.

“We recognize the urgency,” he said, “but it’s important that we build this unit carefully to keep the support of our community.”

An 18-year-old woman was killed about 2 a.m. Saturday near food carts on Southwest Third Avenue between Harvey Milk and Washington streets.

The downtown homicide followed a shooting in late June in Old Town’s entertainment district near Northwest Fourth Avenue and Couch Street that wounded two men and sent patrons flooding out of a nearby bar.

The police chief said the bureau used to have officers assigned to a special entertainment district detail but that was halted during the pandemic and had not been reinstituted.

He said the bureau will need to pull officers from other assignments to place renewed focus on the downtown area and entertainment district.

The bureau has lost about 125 officers in the past year, Lovell said. “You can only go so long with that trend before you hit a tipping point,” he added.

“It’s just really a question of now where do those resources come from,” the chief said. “It’s a heavy ask for Central Precinct. They have a lot of things going on. But keeping people safe in the city is our main concern. So we’ll figure out a way to have a presence there. But it’s important for people to know that those resources come from somewhere else.”

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