Mayor Ted Wheeler has announced millions of dollars in budget cuts to the Portland, Oregon police department, including the disbanding of the department’s Gun Violence Reduction Task Force, established in 2019 to take on shootings in the city. Some members of the city council had long called for defunding the task force, which was an offshoot of the city’s Gang Enforcement Team, claiming that the task force was ineffective at stopping criminals, while it profiled black residents of the city.
Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, along with activists, had long called for dismantling the GVRT.
The Portland Police Bureau’s controversial Gang Enforcement Team was rebranded into the Gun Violence Reduction Team in January 2019. The GET faced criticism by many in the city for targeting the Black community and keeping informal lists of alleged gang members.
An audit of the Gang Enforcement Team’s work in 2015-2016 found the officers disproportionately stop Black people and that they lacked data to show how frequently they pull over actual gang members versus how often it unnecessarily stopped other drivers.
“At the end of the day, they have a horrible conviction rate,” said Hardesty, who has been pushing the city to defund the program since long before she was elected.
“They couldn’t find a gang member if they fell over one.”
The department had already de-emphasized fighting gang violence when it launched the Gun Violence Reduction Task Force, calling it a “holistic approach” to reducing shootings in the city.
“We made this change to align our officers and investigators so they can work collaboratively on all gun violence that occurs in the city,” said Chief Danielle Outlaw. “We will continue to investigate violence committed by those who claim affiliation to criminal gangs, and continue our work with community stakeholders who work to prevent this violence through outreach and other strategies. This new model will allow for our officers and investigators to work more closely, implement additional strategies and have a more intensive response to all gun violence in the city. These crimes deeply impact our community and we want to ensure we create a robust team with the common goal of reducing gun violence.”
The Gun Violence Reduction Team will be contacted by officers after every shooting. Supervisors will determine if members of GVRT, the Robbery Detail, Domestic Violence Reduction Unit, Homicide Detail or another investigative unit will respond to assume the investigation
The members of the Gun Violence Reduction Team meet biweekly with representatives from the Multnomah County District Attorney, the United States Attorney for Oregon, as well as members from Parole and Probation, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s office and the Gresham Police Department to share information in a collaborative manner with the goal to prevent future gun violence. GVRT members also continue to share information with the Office of Youth Violence Prevention in a coordinated effort to reach community members directly impacted by gun violence. This holistic approach, which includes services and assistance to those involved in or at risk for future violence made available through OYVP is intended to prevent further gun violence and trauma in our community.
There were more than 400 shootings in Portland in 2019, including 27 homicides, and officers were already complaining that they were overwhelmed by the increasing amount of gang-related violence, as The Oregonian reported earlier this year as violence surged once again.
What’s troubling to officers is the number of bullet casings found at recent crime scenes: 53 at one; 46 at another, 41 and 38 at others, said Sgt. Mark Friedman of the Gun Violence Reduction Team. Police do forensic analysis on all recovered casings and bullets, and in the recent shootings, the quick tests have shown that multiple guns were involved in many of them.
Police said some of the shootings stem from an ongoing rivalry between the Hoover street gang and the Woodlawn Park Bloods. They also suspect others result from “spontaneous’’ disputes that erupt over a girl or sign of disrespect. Bullets fly because gang members are perhaps more at ease carrying guns now as a strapped police force stops them less, some veteran officers said.
On the one hand, perhaps the rising violent crime in Portland is evidence of the failures of the Portland police to effectively deal with gang violence in the city. On the other hand, ending the task force isn’t likely to actually improve the ability to make arrests and prosecute shootings. In fact, it’s likely to lead to further increases in violence as gang members become even more emboldened.
In his announcement, Mayor Wheeler said that he “should have acted with greater urgency to these demands,” and that his “privilege shielded” him “from difficult and uncomfortable truths on our history and society.” In his quest to be America’s Wokest Mayor, however, Wheeler is choosing to ignore another uncomfortable truth; community service in and of itself won’t end gang violence, and law breakers are likely to take advantage of the law enforcement vacuum. That means that the good people in Portland’s worst neighborhoods aren’t going to be empowered by this decision. They’re just going to be at a greater risk of violent crime, particularly with Mayor Wheeler and other Oregon lawmakers still embracing a gun control agenda that inhibits the ability of law-abiding residents to protect themselves.