The Portland Police Bureau should do more to protect information about people’s alleged gang affiliations and to measure how effective the new gun violence teams are at reducing gun violence, according to a city auditor’s update released Tuesday.
The update reports on progress at the bureau on recommendations the auditor made in a 2018 audit that found the bureau’s now disbanded Gang Enforcement Team was disproportionately stopping Black people. That audit also found the team couldn’t prove their traffic stops were effective at reducing gang violence and that there was no accountability in how the team collected and shared information about people’s alleged gang affiliations.
The Gang Enforcement Team was renamed in 2019 to the Gun Violence Reduction Team and repurposed to focus on all gun violence in the city instead of just gang violence. And while it’s been a tumultuous few years for the gun team — they were disbanded under pressure from racial justice protesters in 2020 and reconstituted less than a year later under a different name — the auditor’s report says several of their 2018 recommendations are still relevant and should be adopted.
Despite abolishing its list of known gang members and associates in 2017, the audit update found the bureau still retains that knowledge, albeit through more informal means. The auditor said the police bureau needs a policy “guiding officers on whether and how they can use and share the information.”
“The Bureau uses intelligence information, investigators’ knowledge, and victim statements about gang involvement to investigate crimes,” the report says.
In 2022, former gang team officers trained the current intervention team on Portland’s known gangs, according to the audit. A study by an outside group on Portland gun violence also cited various data points provided by the police bureau, such as the number of gangs active in the city and the estimated number of people in those gangs.
“These examples show that the Bureau continues to use information about people’s gang relationships in less formal ways than keeping lists,” the audit update says.
Last year, the community oversight group working with the intervention team recommended they start using a point system to rate people’s likelihood of engaging in or being the victim of gun violence. If the bureau adopts that recommendation, policies regulating and protecting that information will be even more pressing.
The most recent version of the gun team consists of an investigative team called the Enhanced Community Safety Team and a patrol group called the Focused Intervention Team.
In a three-page response, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler disagreed with nearly every portion of the auditor’s recommendations, saying the new teams are so different from their predecessors that the previous recommendations are unsuitable. The original audit sparked tremendous backlash and was a main driver behind protester demands in 2020 to get rid of the gun violence team.
Wheeler said the recommendation to adopt policies around collecting gang information would require creating a tracking system that would “lead to an unsustainable demand” on police.
The teams still lack clear goals to measure the effectiveness of the different elements of their strategies. For now, only they have an overarching goal of reducing gun violence.
“Maybe you need some intermediate steps to show success at getting there,” said KC Jones, the director of the City Auditor’s Audit Services Division. “Those specific goals for what you’re trying to do with a traffic stop … are the sort of things that we’re pushing for.”
Without those goals, the bureau can’t say whether the unit’s traffic stops are actually helping to reduce gun violence.
“Documenting whether FIT officers encounter a ‘criminal gang suspect’ during a stop does not seem applicable,” Wheeler said.
The report, however, acknowledges the differences between the teams and recommends “the Bureau should still articulate its goals for traffic stops by the Intervention Team to understand the effectiveness of patrol stops.”
On the investigations side, the new team aspires to a 45% clearance rate for non-fatal shootings. If successful, that would be a remarkable improvement over the current 20% clearance rate the bureau reported in 2021. The auditor found the bureau didn’t have case status and workload information readily available, hampering the bureau’s ability to achieve its goals.
Previous incarnations of the team failed to document the investigative purpose of their stops and didn’t document traffic stops that didn’t result in a citation or arrest, known as “mere conversations.” The report says officers are documenting what traffic violation or crime led to the stop, but that both the bureau and Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office raised concerns about tracking those “mere conversations.”
Wheeler said mere conversations encompass a large variety of encounters with the public and tracking them all would be an enormous undertaking. The auditor’s report emphasizes that it is referring to traffic stops that are later recategorized as “mere conversations.”
“This allows the Bureau to analyze if officers are making stops primarily for traffic or for other crime reasons,” the audit update says.
The bureau has made some progress, according to the update. The bureau collected and published traffic and pedestrian stop data for the last full year the gun violence reduction team was operating. The auditor says the same data will be released for the new intervention team as well.
In his response, Wheeler said one of the biggest differences between the new gun violence teams and the versions that came before is the community oversight group that works with it. That group is comprised of volunteers and has no authority to investigate or discipline officers. It has been criticized in the past for being more of a police cheerleader than an oversight body.
Still, Jones said he would like to see the group take up the auditor’s recommendations.
“That’s the most relevant group to keep paying attention to these issues as they’re meeting with bureau members every week,” he said.