Monday, October 26, 2020
Oct. 26, 2020

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Police department faces surge in gun violence as well as nightly protests


PORTLAND — During early August protests, two storefront windows were shattered in Bart Garmon’s barbershop in a historic building, where he was trying to revive his business after a spring closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last weekend, after an arson fire was set at a nearby police union office, protesters again surged through his North Portland block, and someone spray-painted graffiti — “All Cops are Bastards” — on the protective plywood.

So on Sunday, which was supposed to be a day off, he was back down at his business, applying a fresh coat of tan paint to obscure the lettering.

“We are a cornerstone of this community. This shouldn’t happen. We are here to make people look good and feel good,” Garmon said.

Garmon’s business is one of the casualties in an intense new round of protests this month. Federal law enforcement officers have stayed off the streets, but Portland police have been out in force every night, often deep into the early morning hours — to respond to protesters, some of whom have sought to break in or set fire to buildings used by police.

Portland police’s renewed focus on protests comes amid a surge in shootings and homicides, which took the lives of 15 people in July, the highest monthly tally in 30 years. The Portland Police Bureau chief says the renewed diversion of officers to protest duty this month makes it more difficult to follow up on shootings and maintain a street presence to try to head off gun violence.

“We have people (in protests) who are just dedicated to provoking a police response, and that response is taking away from our ability to go out and give people the service that they expect from the Police Bureau,” said Chief Chuck Lovell in an August media briefing.

Among some in the city’s Black community, there also is concern about a move made by Portland politicians to respond to protest demands for police reform. Earlier in the summer, the city council disbanded a 35-person gun violence reduction team because of concerns that it disproportionately targeted people of color.

Critics of that vote say that the unit should not have been disbanded without first developing an alternative way to accomplish outreach efforts. The unit worked with parole and probation officers. They had relationships forged with schools and community-based organizations, as well as gang members and their families as they strove to take guns off the street.

“The city decided to cut … with no real plan, and that left the community with no sense of who to reach out to,” said Joe McFerrin II, president and chief executive officer of Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, which assists at-risk youth.

Police union targeted

The strains on the Portland police force were reflected in an Aug. 7 Twitter post. The police reported that in addition to responding to a protest, North Precinct officers had to deal with two shootings with victims and 16 priority calls holding. “Other precincts are available to help but response times are delayed right now,” the tweet stated.

Saturday, a North Portland protest drew another big police response.

This protest began as a rally that drew hundreds of people to Peninsula Park. People then took to the streets to march for more than a mile through North Portland.

The Portland protesters’ list of demands includes the resignation of Mayor Ted Wheeler and defunding the police force. After more than 70 days of marches and demonstrations, these nightly actions are well organized.

Medics carried supplies to respond to injuries. Other volunteers handed out Gatorade and snacks such as Rice Krispies Treats and sometimes pizza.

Monitors in fluorescent vests helped divert traffic and watch for rogue motorists or others wanting to cause harm. There is a very real risk of such attacks. Less than 24 hours earlier, several makeshift explosives got tossed at protesters gathered at a park in Southeast Portland. No one was injured. A man later caught on video near the park was identified by several people as a former U.S. Navy SEAL and former Central Intelligence Agency contractor, Louis Garrick Fernbaugh, who had been critical of the protests on social media, according to an Oregon Public Broadcasting report.

The destination for the Saturday evening march was the Portland Police Association, a union office that has been a frequent target of past protests. The protesters arrived at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, and quickly created a kind of block party. Two dumpsters were overturned and set on fire, one made of metal that created a bonfire-like blaze while a second one was made of plastic and wafted noxious fumes into the night air.

For much of the crowd, the union building was the center of attention.

Some people sprayed graffiti. Others leaned a fence against the building and climbed up to disable outside security cameras. A phalanx of protesters formed a kind of human curtain around a man who began using some sort of implement to rip through the plywood that covered the door to the union office. For additional cover, some people pulled out umbrellas.

Even with the beats of drums, you could not escape the loud whack, whack whack of efforts to break through the door. People formed in a big circle near the building. “What did you see?” cried a woman who led them in a chant. “You didn’t see (expletive)?”

Violence surges

On a street corner in Northeast Portland, a memorial of flowers and balloons marks the spot where Jordan Lee Louis, 22, was slain.

The killing resulted from assailants who unleashed an early-evening hail of gunfire that also left bullet hole marks in the brick wall of a nearby marijuana dispensary. It was a slaying so shocking that the Breakside Brewery across the street is still closed.

Police suspect that the ambush of Louis may have been in retaliation for a shooting the night before, when someone shot a 19-year-old in his bed, according to The Oregonian.

His slaying July 28 was one of two that day in a bloody finale to a month of violence that, in addition to the 15 homicides, included 99 shootings that wounded 38 people.

McFerrin said the surge in shootings may in part be related to the COVID-19 pandemic, with its huge economic and social impacts. But he also notes the importance of a community-focused approach to policing with officers who have the expertise — and relationships — to help keep guns off the streets, and notes that the disbanding of the gun violence unit in early July came just before the spike in shootings and deaths.

He and other Black leaders who spoke at a news conference said they did not want to rebuild the gun violence unit, which they all noted did have problems.

But they said that there was an urgent need to reimagine and rebuild community policing in Portland — and find the money, and qualified officers to staff that effort.

“The community is hurt,” said Kimberly Dixon, who lost a son to violence and serves on a volunteer crisis group that responds to shootings.