Tuesday, May 11, 2021
May 11, 2021

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In Our View: Portland’s gun violence response offers lessons

The Columbian

Portland is experiencing a scourge of gun violence. According to Oregonlive.com, at least 284 shooting have occurred in the city this year, and 18 fatal shootings have contributed to a total of 26 murders. Portland is on pace for a record 100 homicides this year; last year the city saw 55 killings, the most in 26 years.

Many factors contribute to gun violence: A prevalence of guns, social and economic distress, and other criminal activity such as drugs among them. Most major cities have seen similar increases, with murders jumping at least 30 percent in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in 2020 compared with the previous year.

The stress of the pandemic and lockdown orders likely contributed to the increase. But in Portland’s case, at least, there also is a lesson for how policy and budget decisions can influence outcomes.

In June of last year, amid public protests over police brutality and racial injustice, the Portland City Council trimmed $15 million from the police bureau’s annual budget. The previous budget had been $244 million. In November, commissioners rejected a proposal to cut an additional $18 million.

Portland has been at the center of a national discussion over police tactics and funding. Conservative media outlets have been quick to prominently report acts of violence that have arisen from a series of protests, using the city to reinforce the trope of lawless landscapes mismanaged by progressive politicians. (City officials are elected in nonpartisan races, as they are in Vancouver).

Much of the money previously earmarked for Portland police was directed to other programs. A new Portland Street Response to dispatch unarmed first responders to people in crisis received $5 million; other money went to a fund to develop Black youth leadership and toward a civil rights program.

In the process, the cuts eliminated the city’s Gun Violence Reduction Team. The program launched in 2018, following models in other cities that had seen mixed success.

This month, with gun violence escalating, city commissioners agreed to invest in nonprofits working with at-risk communities, add six detectives to the police team that investigates shootings, and form a dedicated police unit to proactively prevent violence. They also agreed to increase the number of park rangers – unarmed officials who are not police officers.

But commissioners did not agree to additional police funding, meaning the money will come from within the bureau.

Then, on Tuesday, city officials agreed to work with an FBI-led task force to stem gun violence, with 20 local officers being deputized as federal officers. Last year, during protests over racial injustice, the Trump administration employed a heavy-handed approach that included deputies in unmarked vans grabbing people off the street and detaining them.

“We have a new federal administration that I think we will work very well with,” the local district attorney said. “I’m looking forward to turning the page on the past summer and the way that played out, and working with this new administration in collaborating on these cases.”

All of this represents the complexity of a city balancing civil rights with protecting the public. But for most residents of Portland – and other areas in the metro area – the most eye-catching concern is a quick uptick in shootings. While Portland is by far the largest city in the region, the response from officials there should help inform other cities of how to keep the peace – and how not to.