D.A. Says Portland Gang Violence Growing "Like A Wildfire"

Portland politicians have been conducting an experiment in public safety over the last year; what happens when you disband a police unit designed to target the most prolific violent offenders, slash the department’s budget by nearly $20-million, and portray law enforcement as a bigger problem than the violent criminals they’re supposed to be arresting?

The answer? You get the highest homicide rate in nearly 30 years, with no relief in sight. According to the Portland Police Bureau, there have already been more than 100 shootings in the city so far this year, and Multnomah County Chief Deputy District Attorney Kirsten Snowden is one of those now sounding the alarm.

“Gun violence, like all violence, is a public health issue,” she said. “It tends to spread and grow exponentially, it’s like a wildfire, with a life of its own.”

Social and economic inequities aggravate the problem as well, she added.

“We have limited resources available for local law enforcement. We’ve had the discontinuation of the gun violence response team, which has severely impacted the manner in which these crimes are investigated.”

Snowden said the DA’s office is getting frantic phone calls from mothers, telling them they are worried about their sons becoming targets of gun violence.

The problem with Snowden’s analogy is that we actually fight wildfires by trying to put out the blaze. We don’t defund fire departments or disband those squads that are set up to specifically target wildfires.

Violent crime grows when it is left unchecked, and in Portland, protests and violent demonstrations against the police have not only led to a reduction in funding and a shift in resources, but has also left the community less likely to cooperate with law enforcement when it comes to identifying and testifying against the perpetrators of violence.

Now the city’s belatedly trying to undo the self-inflicted damage, at least partially. Mayor Ted Wheeler recently announced his support for dedicating a team of officers to respond to every shooting inside the city limits.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told a group of stakeholders Friday that he approved a request from Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell to dedicate seven officers to respond to shootings. The mayor said he approved a plan to have a sergeant, four officers, and two detectives be on call 24/7 to respond to shootings scenes.

The mayor also approved the request for a “Public Safety Support Specialist for next-day collection of video and other evidence and 1 Crime Analyst.”

“I know that this comes with a financial cost. My Council colleagues share my sense of urgency in our response, and I am committed to doing everything I can to provide the necessary resources for this work,” Wheeler told the people comprising the Gun Violence Response Coordination.

It’s a small move in the right direction, but it’s still a reactive tactic and not a proactive strategy to stop the shootings before they start. Portland’s Gun Violence Reduction Team, which was axed by the city last year, was more focused on crime prevention than crime solving, but there’s no political will at the moment to bring back the unit. Meanwhile, Multnomah County D.A. Mike Schmidt, who was elected last year on a platform of de-policing and criminal justice reform, claims his office is trying to focus on the most violent offenders in the city, though his efforts are clearly falling short with shootings and homicides at record-high levels.

With police and prosecutors arguing over the best way to reduce violent crime, Portland residents are choosing to protect themselves. In Multnomah County, concealed carry applications last month were about double what they were in January of 2020, and demand for firearms is so high that gun shops across the state say they simply can’t keep up. There are many reasons why so many Americans are embracing their right to keep and bear arms at the moment, but in Portland it’s clear that the inability or unwillingness of local politicians to get tough on crime is causing some Portlandians to arm themselves for self-defense for the first time in their lives.

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