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Portland Mayor Declares Emergency Amid Rise in Gun Violence

With fatal shootings at historic levels, Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a state of emergency on July 21 and hopes to reduce the violence by 10 percent over the next two years.

(TNS) — The mayor declared a state of emergency Thursday, July 21, over the city’s historic levels of gun violence and pledged to spend money and attention to intervene in the lives of those responsible for shootings plaguing the city and those at risk of becoming victims.

Mayor Ted Wheeler on Thursday said the goal is to reduce fatal shootings by 10 percent over the next two years by increasing community-based interventions.

“I intend to restore the safety of the Portland community,” Wheeler said at a news conference at City Hall. “We will not stop until we bring peace back to those Portland neighborhoods too often caught in the crossfire.”

About $2.4 million already set aside in the city’s budget has yet to be distributed to community agencies or people with the background and ability to influence the most prolific shooters and support violence intervention programs for those falling victim to gun violence.

So far this year, 52 people have died in homicides in Portland, putting the city on course to meet or exceed last year’s record-breaking 92 killings.

The emergency declaration will allow the city to cut through some of the grant requirements and quickly allot money to help ex-gang members intercede — they are the ones who may hold the most influence over those involved in shootings and be most successful in encouraging them to put down their guns, Wheeler and other city staff said.

“We need credible messengers and that’s part of this plan,” he said.

Stephanie Howard, the mayor’s community safety director, said the city will look for someone to do gang outreach “who understands that life” and “has gotten themselves out of the life” and can connect with people on the streets today to persuade them to choose a different path. These ex-gang members may not have been awarded previous city grants for their work, hampered by the grant-writing requirements, city officials said.

The emergency declaration also is intended to foster better collaboration between multiple bureaus and city offices that are doing pieces of community engagement that aren’t well-coordinated now, Wheeler said. That would include the Bureau of Transportation, Office of Community & Civic Life, Parks & Recreation and Office of Violence Prevention.

Wheeler tapped Mike Myers, a former Portland fire chief who now runs the city’s community safety division, to be the “incident commander” of daily Safer Summer PDX meetings and work to coordinate employees in multiple city bureaus to address the problem, according to the mayor and his staff.

The head of the Police Bureau’s Focused Intervention Team, a group of two sergeants and 12 officers targeting gun violence, will be encouraged to refer people whom team members consider most at risk of getting involved in shootings or becoming shooting victims to Myers and his staff. In turn, Myers and his staff will make sure those names are referred to community-based services, ranging from gang outreach workers to hospital-based or trauma support for victims of shootings.

“The primary focus of Safer Summer PDX is to use non-law enforcement interventions directed toward the small percentage of individuals who are most likely to commit or become victims of gun violence, but whom law enforcement is presently unable or unlikely to build a case against,” according to a statement released by the mayor’s office.

Currently, Portland police, county prosecutors and probation officers meet once a week with federal agents and prosecutors to conduct a shooting review. From that review, names of people are referred to the city’s Office of Violence Prevention for potential community intervention and support, Chief Chuck Lovell said.

A recent study by the California Partnership for Safe Communities found that 227 people who were directly involved in a gang were tied to a fatal or nonfatal shooting in Portland between January 2019 through December 2021.

Myers’ Community Safety Division will focus the $2.4 million to support these steps: The city’s Office of Violence Prevention’s outreach work to those at highest risk of firing shots, persuading those involved in shootings to put down their guns, engaging at-risk youths with pro-social activities and adopting environmental design changes such as added lighting or traffic diversions in neighborhoods most impacted by the shootings.

The city also will work to step up enforcement in criminal hot spots, or neighborhoods most impacted by violence, and work to find safer housing options for people living on the streets, who have been highly impacted by shootings, Myers said.

Between 2019 and the end of this past May, the neighborhoods that recorded the most shootings were Hazelwood, Powellhurst-Gilbert, Centennial, Lents, Cully, Parkrose, Montavilla, and St. Johns, according to Police Bureau data. Most shootings occurred Thursday through Sunday, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.

In 2021, there were a total of 1,327 shootings. As of July 14, there were 729 shootings in the city this year.

Kandel Ashley, one of two new hires by the mayor and assigned to work with Myers on the Safer Summer PDX initiative, is a native Portlander who said he and his family have been directly affected by gun violence. He said there’s a need for an “all hands on deck” approach.

Wheeler also appealed directly to those engaged in the violence.

“I’m here to tell you that we are sincere in wanting to offer you a path out. We want to provide you with the tools, the resources and the support needed to lead a better, safer life for you. And importantly for your loved ones,” he said, pledging to have community outreach workers connect with them. “We’ll also be establishing a hotline where you can confidentially reach out to us.”

The hotline hasn’t been set up yet. The mayor’s office is also assigning a deputy city attorney to the Safer Summer PDX initiative to serve as its legal counsel to ensure compliance with constitutional and any confidentiality protections.

The declaration to support the mayor’s Safer Summer PDX initiative comes during a significant summer spate of fatal shootings that have claimed the lives of five people in less than a week. It’s the latest emergency declaration issued by a mayor who has issued at least three others focused on unsanctioned homeless encampments.

It also follows a recommendation by a community oversight group earlier this week that the city adopt the ShotSpotter gun detection technology with 13 controls to avoid unintended consequences. The group also wants the city to allow police to compile a “Violent Impact Player” list to identify so-called “serial trigger pullers” for intervention and enhanced attention.

Portland police Lt. Ken Duilio, a supervisor of the Focused Intervention Team, said in the last week and a half there’s been an uptick in high-profile people known to police who have been involved in retaliatory-type, back-and-forth shootings.

Members of the community group that oversees the Focused Intervention Team asked Thursday if the City Council might consider ShotSpotter sooner, considering the mayor’s emergency declaration on gun violence. Howard said she didn’t anticipate it going before the council for another couple of weeks to allow further review.

The mayor applauded the hiring of 16 new officers Thursday amid an ongoing staffing shortage in the Police Bureau and signaled he’ll also be looking to bolster the Police Bureau’s budget next year.

The police chief said while policing clearly can help, it’s just one part of addressing systemic gun violence.

“I’ve always felt like the police are kind of your last line of defense for the person who might have a gun in the car, and they’re gonna go do a shooting tonight. Maybe a police stop or some contact may interfere. But all these other things failed at that point,” Lovell said. “Long term, all these other things are the answer: education, living wage jobs, opportunity. Those things, I think, are going to eventually lead to a change.”

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