PORTLAND, Ore. – When Oregon's most populous city had a rampant gang problem 30 years ago, Portland detectives were stunned if they found more than a few dozen bullet casings after a shooting. Now, police are recording multiple shootings a week with 50 to 70 shots fired, and in one case more than 150, as gang attacks and retaliatory shootings again spiral into a vicious cycle.
With more bullets comes more bloodshed. There have been 37 homicides in Oregon's largest city so far this year, more than six times the number recorded in the same period last year. If nothing changes, Portland will surpass its all-time record for homicides of 70 set in 1987, when the city was in the midst of a gang siege.
The violence has deeply affected Portland, a liberal city that continues to grapple with the role of its police force more than a year after thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters demanded change following the murder of George Floyd.
“This touches all of us,” said Portland pastor Matt Hennessee, a longtime anti-gun violence activist whose 33-year-old stepson was shot and killed in a parking lot in May. “I have lived here for 32 years, and I have always seen this city as a safe place. This is not the Portland that we know.”
Police estimate that half of Portland's 470 shootings this year, which have injured more than 140 people, are gang-related. Mayor Ted Wheeler warned last month that perpetrators are being told by gangs to shoot someone within 30 days or be shot and that people are traveling from other states to engage in violence in the Rose City.
“People are scared. They are angry. They are fed up,” said Portland Police Sgt. Ken Duilio.
Portland's pervasive gang violence in the '90s – when it was estimated that there were 2,500 people in up to 600 gangs in the area – left a crimson stain on recent city history.
But now, following the pandemic shutdown and Floyd's murder, paired with a diminishing police presence, community leaders say the problem has returned.
“You have multiple shooters – that's kind of a new phenomenon – multiple guns and lots of shots being fired,” said Duilio, who added more gunshots increases the odds of bystanders being hit, including most recently a newspaper carrier, Uber driver and city bus driver.
The rise in violence comes at a time when the Portland Police Bureau's staffing is at its lowest in decades – the department is more than 100 officers short of “authorized strength,” as determined by the city. In the past nine months, the department has experienced a rapid turnover with more than 120 officers having left the department, many citing low morale and burnout from nightly racial justice protests that would end in confrontation and plumes of tear gas.
Despite police pleas for more personnel, city leaders slashed $27 million from the police budget – $11 million due to the pandemic-caused budget crisis and $15 million amid calls to defund the police – vowing to devote money to community groups working to curb gun violence.
Officials also disbanded a specialized unit focused on curbing gun violence that had long faced criticism for disproportionately targeting people of color.
Jo Ann Hardesty, the first Black woman elected to the City Council and who pushed to cut the unit, maintains that disbanding the team last summer was the right decision.
“The police have a role, but their role is simply to solve crime – their role is not to prevent crime,” Hardesty told KOIN 6 last month. “A response to gun violence should not be a knee-jerk reaction.”
But as gun violence continued into 2021, leaders were forced to re-evaluate. More officers have been assigned to shootings, the police bureau has teamed up with the FBI to investigate crimes and the U.S. Attorney for Oregon has ramped up efforts to prosecute gun violence cases.
“To really quell this intense level of violence that we are seeing right now, it is going to take uniformed police officers to stop those cars that are traveling from Point A to Point B for a shooting,” Duilio said.