Violence comes as Portland police grapple with officer shortage, budget cuts.
The number of homicides in Portland has now surpassed its previous annual record of 66, set in 1987 – and there are still more than two months to go in the calendar year.
As of Tuesday, Oregon’s largest city has recorded 67 killings so far this year, three-quarters of which have been carried out by firearms, according to the Associated Press. The total number of shootings – around 1,000 – has also left an additional 314 people injured.
“People should be leery because this is a dangerous time,” Lionel Irving Jr., a lifelong Portland resident and a gang outreach worker, told the AP.
The homicides come as Portland’s police department is struggling to keep up amid an acute staffing shortage and budget cuts.
The Pacific Northwest city is now implementing novel solutions aimed at improving safety, including adding traffic barrels to prevent drive-by shootings and suspending minor traffic stops so officers can focus on immediate threats.
Police say many shootings are linked to gangs, fights and retaliation killings, but they are also affecting bystanders.
Nine-year-old Hadar Kedem recently told city leaders about a dangerously close call when she was caught in gunfire earlier this year.
Hadar had been playing with her father, brother and dog at a northeast Portland park when a group of people in ski masks began shooting. Hadar and her family dove for cover behind a metal equipment bin. One bullet landed within feet of the fourth-grader.
“I know that not only do I want change, but everyone wants change,” Hadar said during a City Council meeting last month. “I want to feel safe.”
Nationally, homicides increased by nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, based on FBI data. However, in Portland, deadly violence is increasing at a faster rate than nearly all major cities, with an 83% increase in homicides in 2020, according to the Associated Press.
Portland has seen more homicides in 2021 than some larger cities, including San Francisco, and it’s had twice as many slayings as its larger Pacific Northwest neighbor, Seattle. Other hard-hit Western cities include the Albuquerque, New Mexico, metro area, which has about 679,000 residents and has seen a record 97 homicides this year.
Portland police have struggled to quell the violence, with the bureau 128 officers below authorized strength. Since August 2020, about 200 officers have left the department. Many, in their exit interviews, cited low morale, lack of support from city officials and burnout from months of racial justice protests, which often ended in plumes of tear gas and confrontation but have largely died down since last summer.
“We are running on fumes. There’s no way we can investigate thoroughly, and correctly, all these shootings,” said Daryl Turner, executive director of Portland’s police union.
Turner says the city will need to hire 840 officers over the next five years to implement proper community policing and keep Portland safe.
Besides staffing, Turner said the increase in violence is directly related to budget cuts.
Amid booming calls to defund the police, city leaders slashed $27 million from the police budget last year — $11 million due to the pandemic-caused budget crisis — a decision that Turner says has cost lives.
Officials also disbanded a specialized unit focused on curbing gun violence, which had long faced criticism for disproportionately targeting people of color.
Earlier this month, additional traffic barrels were installed in a southeast Portland neighborhood that has been plagued by shootings — some of which were linked to high-speed drivers. City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said the hope is that the traffic changes will slow activity at gun violence hot spots and make it harder to “both commit a crime and get away with it.”
“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation where government needs to dig deep, think creatively,” Hardesty said. “From police to community-based organizations to infrastructure design — we all have a role to play in this emergency.”
In addition, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced in June that officers are no longer being directed to stop drivers for low-level traffic violations.
Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell said this was in response to data showing a disproportionate impact on Black drivers, but also because the city doesn’t have enough officers.
The increasing violence and pleas for cities to do more have compelled some areas to switch from defunding police departments to restoring funding to them.
In major cities across the country, portions of police budgets are being restored. From Los Angeles to New York, some law enforcement departments that underwent massive budget cuts, amid nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd last year, have had local leaders restore funds or implement new programs or units.
In Portland, there’s money available for public safety in the form of a $60 million general fund excess balance.
The City Council can use half the money, which came from business taxes last year and was far more than anticipated, however it wants. Whether a significant portion will go to the police bureau has yet to be determined.