After 65% increase in homicides, Portland mayor vows to reduce murder rate by 10%

AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer, File

At this point, Mayor Ted Wheeler might as well promise to completely eradicate murder inside the city limits. As long as you’re offering nothing more than empty rhetoric, you might as well shoot for the moon, right?

Wheeler issued a new “emergency declaration” for the city of Portland this week, pledging to reduce homicides by 10% over the next two years by directing $2.4-million to “community groups and prevention efforts.” While there are some community violence intervention programs that have a track record of some success, I doubt very much that Wheeler’s new declaration is going to lead to any substantive results, especially given the fact that homicides have soared by 65% across the city since last year, and have nearly doubled the 55 homicides recorded in 2020.

The centerpiece of Wheeler’s new proposal is called the Safer Summer PDX Plan, and the mayor says its intended to focus on the small number of individuals who are driving Portland’s violence.

“We know that about 200 people are involved in local gun violence in Portland,” Wheeler said. “Rather than arrest and prosecute, our goal will be to offer each person at risk of gun violence a meaningful and workable plan tailored to each person’s needs to prevent them from getting involved with it in the first place.”

The Safer Summer PDX plan draws extensively from a gun violence reduction program first launched in Boston in 1996 called Ceasefire, often credited for having contributed to dramatic gun violence reductions in cities including Oakland, Cincinnati, Chicago and Indianapolis. But those reductions are often short lived, and cities that implement the program frequently see rates of gun violence rebound.

One component of Wheeler’s plan, called the Focused Investment Group, will have a $2.4 million budget and be tasked with intervening to “persuade those at highest risk of shooting not to shoot,” engaging at-risk youth, and investing in communities to “address environmental factors conducive to gun violence.”

I’m less than impressed, to be honest. Unlike Project Ceasefire, which identifies those most at risk of committing a shooting or being the victim of one and then offers them a choice (let us help you or we will take your next case to federal court and lock you up for as long as possible), Wheeler’s plan appears to be all carrot and no stick. In fact, Wheeler went out of his way to say that these programs are meant to avoid arrests and prosecutions, which tells me that the mayor still isn’t taking the city’s violent crime problem seriously.

While speaking Thursday, flanked by community safety officials — including representatives from the Office of Youth Violence Prevention and Police Chief Chuck Lovell — Wheeler conceded that there was little new in his announcement. He said the emergency declaration will streamline the work various offices are already doing by bringing them under his office.

“Many of these trusted community partners are in the community already. What’s different is now they’re under a unified command structure,” he said. “We’re bringing all of these services together on a unified basis so that they can make quick decisions.”

It doesn’t matter how quickly you make decisions if you’ve already taken certain options off the table, like referring the cases of the most prolific offenders to federal prosecutors who are more likely to secure longer sentences than if these subjects were tried in local courts. With Wheeler going out of his way to help these offenders avoid accountability in the court system altogether, I’m afraid that Portland’s crime problem is likely to get even worse in the months ahead.