Portland has seen 93 homicides this year, and the year isn’t over yet. Those include five people killed by local law enforcement officers. The city’s efforts to reduce this violence starting in 2019, when the uptick started, have been not only unsuccessful but fraught with controversy. Despite the launch of the Enhanced Community Safety Team in February 2021, the start of the Focused Intervention Team in 2022, and an increased Portland Police Bureau recruiting push, the deaths continue to rise. Meanwhile, legal challenges to the Oregon ballot measure that voters narrowly approved to tighten gun laws statewide continue, with a Friday court hearing. We get more details from OPB reporter Jonathan Levinson.
Note: This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with a terrible statistic. Portland has now seen 93 homicides this year, a new annual record with a full month still to go. Multimedia reporter Jonathan Levinson covers policing and guns for OPB. He joins us with more details about what’s happening. Jonathan, welcome back.
Jonathan Levinson: Hi, David.
Miller: 93 homicides, as I noted, it’s a terrible number, but it also can seem like a kind of abstraction. Can you give us a sense for just some of the lives cut short in Portland this year?
Levinson: The first homicide of the year was early morning New Year’s Day around two a.m. It was actually two homicides, 43-year old Andre Foster and his 21- year old nephew, Quayan Foster were shot and killed in Argay Terrace. Third person who was shot in that incident survived. And then on July 27th, Portland police shot and killed 40-year old Aaron Stanton after neighbors called police saying a man was shooting a gun in the air. His neighbor believed that Stanton was struggling with addiction and mental health issues, and that’s one of five people killed by law enforcement this year in Portland. And then on Thanksgiving day a woman shot her boyfriend, 40-year old Justin Williams after an argument at a bar in North Portland.
Miller: Those are just a small handful of the 93. We have set this terrible record with a whole month still to go; if the rate of homicides stays constant, what would the total be?
Levinson: The city is averaging about 8.5 homicides per month. So if we continue at this pace, it will be over 100 this year. Last year we also set a record at 92. Before that, the record was 66 homicides and that’s from about three decades ago.
Miller: What patterns stand out in terms of the most likely perpetrators and victims of gun violence in Portland right now?
Levinson: Portland actually commissioned an analysis of all of the city’s 117 homicides and 314 nonfatal shootings, between January 2019 and June 2021. So we have a pretty good idea of the demographics and how they break out. The victims and suspects are overwhelmingly men and are primarily Black. Some numbers for you - 47% of the people involved in homicides and shootings are Black, compared to about 37% are white. That impact is especially disproportionate since Black people make up less than 6% of the city’s population.
The average age of the victims also skews older than most people often think. The average age of victims is 36 and for suspects, it’s 31. And then a significant share of both victims and suspects had prior involvement with a criminal justice system that includes several arrests, probation or felony conviction, and things along those lines.
Miller: Homicides rose in cities around the country in 2020, meaning that Portland was not alone. This was a nationwide trend. What has happened nationally in the years since?
Levinson: I mean, like you said, it was a dramatic increase in 2020, but it actually started earlier than that. Back in December 2019 the gun violence reduction team - that’s Portland police, a disbanded group of officers devoted to gun violence - said at a press conference that they had noticed shootings were increasing in the latter half of 2019. And people who study crime rates say it may have actually even started much earlier than that. Crime data can be kind of hard to parse, small changes could be statistical noise or it could be part of a trend, but that 2020 surge was so dramatic that it was undeniable. And so I think it’s important to note that it came after decades of steady decline and we are still nationally far from those peaks in the 80s and early 90s.
If you look at 2022 numbers, it seems like the national homicide rate might actually drop this year by about 4%. Obviously, as we’re discussing, Portland is not among those cities seeing a decline this year.
Miller: One of the lines that we’ve heard a lot in the last just couple of years is that the increase in gun violence can be tied to the push two and a half years ago to defund police. There are a few ways to look at this claim; one of them is timing, that you were just talking a little bit about. Can you give us a sense for when homicide rates started to rise, compared to the time when aspects of city budgets were being reallocated?
Levinson: There’s very little evidence to support that idea that defunding the police led to this increase in shootings. Like I just said, homicide started increasing well before the gun violence team was disbanded in June 2020. That’s also around the time when some money was reallocated away from the police. And like you said, that increase in shootings and homicides coincided with increases across the country and that was irrespective of cities and more rural areas, and Republican-led cities or Democrat-led cities, progressive prosecutors and more conservative prosecutors.
That increase did not care about any of those details. Now, some people say the increase would have been less pronounced here had the team not been disbanded, but those kinds of theories are really tough to prove. And it’s now been almost two years since a lot of that gun violence team’s functions started being reintroduced and homicides and shootings have increased.
Miller: So that’s the timing, but there’s also just the question of police funding itself. How much was the police budget cut In 2020 and how significant was that cut?
Levinson: The Police Bureau budget cut was by about around $15 million in 2020. Some of that was in response to community demands amid racial justice protests, but a big chunk of it was applied to all the city bureaus and it was because of projected budget shortfalls due to COVID. That money to the Police Bureau has been returned and then some. The Portland Police budget for the 22-23 cycle is an all-time high, $249 million dollars. I think you can’t talk about budgets and police staffing and all this stuff without pointing out that it’s not totally clear that more police means less homicides in any meaningful way. A recent study found that an additional 15 to 20 officers can reduce homicides by one.
Portland had 36 homicides in 2019. Bringing us back down to that level, by that math, that would make it require us to more than double the current police force, adding 855 officers. Which brings with it other problems: more officers usually means more low- level arrests. More low-level arrests don’t impact violent crime and often lead to police use of force and other negative outcomes.
Miller: You mentioned the disbanding of the Gun Violence Reduction Team in 2020. What did that team do?
Levinson: The Gun Violence Reduction Team investigated every reported shooting in the city. That meant responding to a scene where gunfire had been reported, looking for evidence of gunfire. If they found things like shell casings, for example, they would enter those into a national database administered by the ATF. They also played a role in violence intervention. They had relationships with community organizations, at risk groups, and tried to intervene in what they call “cycles of retaliatory violence”. That’s where one shooting can then lead to several others in retaliation.
Miller: Why was it disbanded?
Levinson: The team had previously been called the Gang Enforcement Team and then it was rebranded to the Gun Violence Reduction Team. As that initial name suggests, they focused on gang violence instead of gun violence more broadly. The city audit found the team disproportionately targeted Black Portlanders. For example, using minor traffic stops as a pretext to search a vehicle. So the team was problematic and not very well liked in the community. And then in 2020, amid the demands of racial justice protesters, disbanding the team was specifically called out as something they wanted.
Miller: What has replaced that team?
Levinson: Well at first nothing, then, as shootings and homicides continued to surge in the latter half of the year, city leaders came under increasing pressure to do something. So, the mayor reintroduced some of the team’s functions in January 2021, that was with the Enhanced Community Safety Team. That’s a team of detectives and officers who investigate shootings.
Then, a year later, they introduced what’s called the Focused Intervention Team, and this team really brings back the crux of what that disbanded gun team did. They are focused solely on gun violence. They patrol areas, neighborhoods with the most gun violence. They respond to shootings and they’re also doing that violence intervention work I mentioned.
Miller: What did you hear from experts about what drives gun violence?
Levinson: Oh, this is such a difficult question. What causes crime to go up or down isn’t very well understood and it’s likely a combination of many complex factors. The police estimate that about half of the shootings in the city are gang related, and so that ties into this problem of the retaliatory violence I mentioned. But there’s a bigger systemic question of like, why do people join gangs, why do people resort to violence? And if you really want to address gun violence, that’s a pretty fundamental issue to try and understand and address.
I spoke to Brain Renauer, he’s a criminology professor at Portland State University. He said people who succumb to this culture of violence and retaliation have lost hope in society and a sense of opportunity. So that suggests that long-term solutions don’t lie in policing and arrests, but in simple, good governance. Pave the roads, invest in schools, invest in all those things we think of as a functioning society and which have for so long been neglected in many communities.
Miller: The city’s efforts have acknowledged that to some extent, right? I mean, the city has put some resources into non-police responses?
Levinson: Yeah, that is correct. This summer the mayor declared a “gun violence emergency” and has allocated $2.7 million in what’s called a Focused Investment Group and their mission is to invest in communities and try to address some of those environmental factors we just spoke about, that long-term lead to gun violence.
Miller: You’ve been on this beat for a few years now and I imagine that at times it’s just, it’s pretty dismal. Does anything give you a sense of hope in a sense that something is actually going to change for the better anytime soon?
Levinson: I’m not typically an optimistic person and I think there’s no shortage of reasons why a person would look at everything going on and feel anything but despair. These are deeply entrenched systemic problems around inequality and racial and environmental justice. The government doesn’t have a great track record on these issues. I think if I had to find something to be hopeful for I would say the conversation has changed dramatically in the past couple of years. There are voices being lifted and listened to who have historically been ignored. We are centering people who live in these communities in a way that I don’t think we have in the past. Now whether or not all that listening and centering will lead to substantive long-term policy change or if it’s all performative, I don’t think we know enough yet to determine, but it’s a sliver of hope.
Miller: Briefly, I want to turn to another big statewide issue which in its own way I think is related to this. Oregon voters approved a measure aimed at reducing gun violence last month. Measure 114. What will it do?
Levinson: When the law takes effect December 8th it will do a few things. It requires anyone who wants to buy a firearm to get a permit first. So that means pay a maximum of $65, pass the background check, get fingerprinted. It also requires taking a course, and that includes a hands-on demonstration that you know how to safely fire a firearm. It also creates a more strict background check. Under the current system, a person buying a firearm can fail a background check if they have been found guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial and committed to a mental institution.
The new law expands that a little bit, starting when the law takes effect. A permit could be denied if a person is reasonably likely to pose a danger to themselves or others based on a past pattern of behavior. So things like violence, or threats of violence. And then finally, Oregon will join 10 other states in banning high capacity magazines. The definition of high capacity varies by state, but in Oregon that means magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds will be banned.
Miller: How have some local sheriffs and police chiefs already pushed back against Measure 114?
Levinson: The measure just barely passed, it was carried across the finish line by more liberal populous counties. In some rural counties it lost by like two to one margin. Many sheriffs have said that they won’t make enforcing the magazine ban a priority and that means they won’t be proactively looking for illegal magazines. One sheriff addressed some of the fear mongering that often gets circulated around gun laws, and said that deputies won’t be going door to door searching for contraband, but he clarified that it’s still their duty to uphold the law. A lot of law enforcement sheriff’s officers and police chiefs have expressed concern that they will be responsible for issuing the permits to purchase and said they just don’t have the staffing to handle that.
An estimated 340,000 firearms were bought in the state last year. That’s a lot of purchase permits that they need to process. And then there are some sheriffs who have taken a much more extreme position. They have said that they believe the law is unconstitutional, and so that’s why they won’t enforce it. It’s not a sheriff’s job to interpret the constitution, that’s something judges do. But this rationale is pulling from an extremist ideology known as the “constitutional sheriffs”, which was popularized in the 70s by a white supremacist named William Potter Gale. It incorrectly holds that the sheriff is the highest law enforcement officer in the land and it can determine the law’s constitutionality.
It was resurfaced during the Obama administration by a former sheriff, closely aligned with the Oath Keepers militia. That’s the group that was sort of front and center in the January 6th insurrection and the idea has gained a foothold here in Oregon among several sheriffs and other far right groups and we’re seeing nods to that ideology now.
Miller: Finally, this measure is already facing a separate legal challenge and there’s going to be a hearing tomorrow in federal district court. What is this case about?
Levinson: That’s right. There have actually been lawsuits filed but tomorrow morning a federal judge will hear arguments in one from plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit arguing that the law is unconstitutional. In court filings this week Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum argued that the law should be allowed to take effect. She said magazines are not arms protected by the Second Amendment and she also believes that the permit requirement will ultimately be upheld. The judge in that case could throw out all, or part of the law. She could issue an injunction preventing the state from enforcing all, or part of the law. Or, she could let it stand and go into effect next Thursday.
Miller: Jonathan, thanks very much.
Levinson: Thanks for having me, Dave.
Miller: Jonathan Levinson is a multimedia reporter covering policing for OPB.
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